One of the more auspicious debuts in film history, the 1973 drama Badlands was director Terrence Malick's first project after film school. Loosely based on the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather in 1958, it stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Kit and Holly, two young lovers on the lam in the badlands of the American West.
The Criterion Collection's reissue of Badlands, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, packages the digitally restored film with several director-approved extras, including interviews with the editor and producer, and a lengthy new behind-the-scenes documentary with Sheen and Spacek. The infamously private Malick is conspicuously but typically absent.
Badlands is such a scary and beautiful film. There's a kind of deep focus running throughout, both visually and narratively. Malick composes grand images of vast prairies and burning sunsets, the camera absorbing all that physical space with a thousand-mile stare. And the storytelling is deep-focus in a meditative sense. There are but two main characters in this movie, and neither talks much. The young lovers are so disconnected from the waking world, so desensitized, that even Kit's regular spikes of sudden violence barely rouse them. Their heads are somewhere else.
The included documentary provides some interesting insights into Malick's vision. Art director Jack Fisk tells the best stories. For instance, Malick had originally planned to have the runaways hide in the wilderness in a rickety lean-to. But Fisk convinced the director to let him build a three-story treehouse out of branches — which Fisk managed in a single day. This change in production plans turns Kit and Holly's wilderness hideout into a spartan, idyllic retreat. The film's most lyrical passages take place here, with Kit and Holly dancing in the dust to a ghostly AM radio broadcast. Then the bounty hunters show up.
The making-of doc reveals several instances like this, when on-the-fly collaborations and adjustments result in that elusive moviemaking mojo. Another interesting detail: Fisk got so into set dressing the indoor location that he would gather hundreds of obscure objects and scatter them everywhere — even inside closed closets and dresser drawers. The inside of one rural cabin looks like a 400-year-old found art exhibit.
In response, Sheen and Spacek keep handling these strange objects as they move through the film's spaces. As Kit and Holly, they're constantly examining the bric-a-brac, looking slightly puzzled. It adds to the feeling that the two alienated young people are barely familiar with our world.
In a new interview, Sheen says the script to Badlands was the best he'd ever read, and that the role of Kit was the role of a lifetime. Actors tend to say that kind of thing in retrospective interviews, but there seems to be a general agreement that Badlands was a special film. Many of Malick's techniques were new and weird. His use of voiceoever, for instance: Holly's narration is never deployed to advance the story. Instead, it's used to add counterpoint to an image, or to color in the character a bit more. Holly's blank reveries serve to remind us of just how young she really is.
Malick is similarly deliberate with the film's violence, which is more unsettling for being presented simply in all its banal evil. Remember too that this is a story set against the milieu of the 1950s, as seen from the 1970s. Spacek recalls that audiences didn't laugh at the violence at the film's premiere. "But now people laugh," she says. "I guess our society has changed. Things were different then."
One more cool story: Spacek and Fisk met on the set of Badlands and married a year later. They'll celebrate their 40th anniversary next year. Looking back on it all, Fisk gets thoughtful: "Our lives may be meaningless or they may be perfect, it's hard to tell. I'm not a philosopher, but Badlands makes me think about those things."
Also New This Week:
Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack is suspiciously light on extras — on-set video blogs, mostly. Look for the Deluxe Collector's Platinum Whatever Edition in another few months.
Jessica Chastain headlines as the CIA agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden in director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty .
Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for her turn in Les Miserables , new to DVD and Blu-ray with a big collection of bonus features.
The frequently filthy and sometimes funny This is 40 reunites several key players from Judd Apatow's stable.
French actress Marion Cotillard and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts star in the appropriately French-Belgian drama Rust and Bone .
Plus: The Big Picture, Shadow People, The Other Son, Bachelorette and Price Check.