Kit and Holly make Bonnie and Clyde look like a church group. Terrence Malick’s low-budget debut feature told the story of an alienated young couple’s killing spree across the Midwest. The film’s brutal violence and dreamlike imagery turn the heartland into a panoramic hellscape. The 1950’s Americana of James Dean, classic cars and apple pie yields gorgeously surreal nightmare. Making Badlands proved to be a true labor of love for Malick, who raised most of the film’s budget himself and took on multiple jobs to overcome the numerous production setbacks and financial constraints.
Let's be honest.
Among directors, Malick has a legendary reputation for his visionary style. A bold story even by the high standards of New Hollywood cinema, Badlands introduced many of the characteristics that have become trademarks of Malick’s style: lush cinematography and stream of consciousness voice-over that challenge the viewer to find the connection to the overall story. While the low-budget nature of Badlands arguably shows Malick at his most constrained (he didn’t have the money or the technology to flashback to the age of dinosaurs in the middle of the film), the movie still exhibits the philosophical questioning and complicated character portrayals that have made him a revered name among certain critical and directorial circles. Even if Malick definitely isn’t for all tastes, Badlands shows how a director can tell a dark, difficult story with personal style, making it a call to arms for anyone serious about film. In fact, Badlands grew out of Malick’s frustration with the studio system, as he had watched his scripts get ruined by the Hollywood machinery, prompting him to make this film on his own terms.
Outside of the silent era, Badlands is arguably the best example of why film is a visual medium. It’s especially impressive considering how little the film cost, at least relative to the times and expense of equipment. Instead of relying on elaborate sets, Malick literally took advantage of what nature gave him, using the landscape of the rural Midwest to paint a portrait of his characters’ bleak inner lives. The sun setting over the countryside or lightning flashing in the sky become meditations on the inevitable fate of the couple as they kill their way through their journey. To be fair, much of Malick’s distinct imagery gets assisted by voice-over from Holly, who guides the audience through the cinematic labyrinth. This is a directorial trademark that would overtake his style in later to the point of self-parody. Yet Badlands allows us to enjoy it in its purest form.