The scandalous true-life killing spree carried out by 20-year-old Charles Starkweather and his teen lover Caril-Ann Fugate across Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958 provided the inspiration for Badlands (1973), Terrence Malick’s dazzling directorial debut, now commonly regarded as one of the seminal films of the 1970s.
It’s South Dakota in the late 1950s. Young Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) is calmly practising her baton twirling skills in the street when she first encounters Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a local garbage collector who seems intent on winning her affections. There’s an instant attraction – Holly can’t believe her luck that such a good-looking guy is showing an interest in her, especially since she’s not the most popular girl at school. Holly’s father (Warren Oates) doesn’t approve of their fast blossoming relationship - after all, Kit is 25 and from the wrong side of the tracks, whereas his daughter is an impressionable 15-year-old. Defiant Kit is not going to be easily warned off, soon revealing a much darker side to his character, which includes murder.
The couple flee and seek sanctuary in the nearby forests, where Kit builds a tree house and they are forced to become archaic hunter gatherers. The film is recounted throughout by Holly in the third person, and everything plays out through her romanticised view of the world. She seldom questions Kit about his actions, maintaining the same impassive demeanour, though can’t quite figure him out. He claims to love her though and, in Holly’s mind at least, that’s good enough. During the quieter moments Holly retreats into her celebrity magazines, soaking up banal stories within the pages that seem to inspire her style of commentary on the unfolding events. She thinks that rebellious Kit looks just like James Dean and, reinforcing that image later in the film, he even adopts the iconic actor’s famous stance from Giant (1956), rifle stretched across his shoulders.
Besides the off-kilter narration, another feature which sets the film apart is the sublime imagery – that impossibly vast sun-soaked landscape is adoringly captured, a trait that would reoccur in Malick’s subsequent films. Similarly, the haunting soundtrack is spot on, perfectly conjuring up emotions at certain key points. If the main theme – Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer - sounds familiar, that’s because it was later re-worked by Hans Zimmer for True Romance (1993) as well as featuring in many other productions over the years. I enjoyed the gadgets shown here from times gone by that add a further enchanting quality. For example, Kit makes his confession on a “voice-o-graph”, recording himself on a vinyl disc from a booth in the street, which he then plays back repeatedly on a record player.
Badlands is also significant as the film that put both Sheen and Spacek firmly on the map, marking the start of two distinguished careers, and deservedly so. Sheen is effortlessly cool in the role, but also chillingly effective during the sporadic violence, for which Kit resolutely shows no remorse and even seems to later revel in his notoriety. Spacek is ostensibly playing a similar character to the one she would famously portray three years later in Carrie, that of an alienated young girl who doesn’t bond with her single parent and finds it difficult to fit in with the wider society. They are in fact very different onscreen, with Carrie White infinitely more expressive than the blank Holly, demonstrating Spacek’s considerable versatility. Badlands could have been just like countless other movies about runaway lovers who embark on a murderous spree - Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is an obvious comparison, but it still stands boldly head and shoulders above most of the rest as a landmark film.
This release forms part of the Premium Collection, sold exclusively through HMV. There are now over 50 films in the collection, predominately culled from the back catalogue of Warner Bros., plus a handful of titles from Sony and Paramount. Many of these films are making their debut on BD in the UK, and it’s worth looking out for alternate versions of cult favourites – particularly an extended cut of Kubrick’s The Shining. Each release comes with the film on both DVD and Blu-ray, together with a handy download option via the ultraviolet website. All titles come with a sturdy slipcase and include either four glossy art cards or a collector’s booklet - Badlands comes with the former.
Badlands was licensed to Criterion in the US, who carried out a 4K restoration for their region “A” locked 2013 Blu-ray release, though it’s uncertain whether Warner’s UK edition has come from the same source. Nonetheless it’s a gorgeous transfer with vibrant colours and plenty of detail. The 1080p presentation preserves the original 1:85 ratio and is free from any signs of damage. Having viewed it on various home formats over the years, I can confirm that this is the best it has looked in the UK, further accentuating those striking visuals - credited to three cinematographers including Tak Fujimoto.
The audio options available include the original English mono track, a 5.1 mix and various other language variants. Dialogue is well-defined throughout and there are no discernible imperfections with the soundtrack, and subtitles are available in English and seven other languages
Bonus material provided across the Premium Collection has been quite erratic - some releases are chock-full with extras (A Clockwork Orange comes with a third disc to accommodate them), while others have been somewhat lacklustre. Badlands is mediocre in this respect, with only a single featurette.
An Absence of Malick (24 mins) - Produced by Blue Underground in 2002 for an earlier DVD release, this includes interviews with stars Sheen and Spacek, plus film editor Billy Webber - naturally there is no input from the famously private Malick. The featurette has just enough nuggets of trivia to make it worthwhile, though I did long for the more recent documentary that comes with Criterion’s edition in the US.
Badlands is available now on Blu-ray from HMV as part of the Premium Collection, or on DVD from all other retailers.