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Badlands (1973)

2016 #87
Terrence Malick | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18* / PG

BadlandsThe debut feature of Terrence “four films in 30 years” Malick comes with a tagline-cum-plot-description so good I’m just going to quote it wholesale:

He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. He was very fastidious. People who littered bothered him.
She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. She wasn’t very popular at school.
For awhile they lived together in a tree house.
In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.

As 60-word summaries go, that pretty fairly covers the characters, plot, and, to some degree, the film’s tone. It’s loosely based on a real-life killing spree (which also inspired several other movies, including Natural Born Killers), though it’s told with Malick’s style of cinematic poetry, rather than documentary realism or sensationalised violence. Malick has spoken of trying to give the story a fairy tale tone, to “take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality.” The latter is definitely true: the extended sequence where the young lovers live in a treehouse in the woods has an ethereal feel, like a daydream fantasy. For me it was probably the film’s most memorable section, though it’s the least related to the central criminal thrust.

As for removing the sharpness of the violence, I’d argue that, if anything, Malick has heightened it. When it comes it is short and shocking, kind of grubby and nasty. While the film may contain dreaminess and poetry, it’s not a pleasant experience. The shabby lives Crazy kidsthe leads start out from bleeds outwards into their time on the run, which Holly romanticises but feels constantly grotty. I suppose a film about killers shouldn’t be nice, but maybe this is why the time in the treehouse stood out for me — a little oasis of pleasantness; a break from the insalubriousness of the rest of the picture.

It’s fair to say I didn’t like the film very much, which is not the same as saying it’s not good. The adjective I keep coming back to is “grubby” — in spite of its occasional beauty, it has a grubbiness in its production, which tells a story of grubby people leading grubby lives in grubby circumstances as they perform grubby acts. I suppose that unpleasantness is a necessary counterpoint to the innumerable movies we have that glamorise violent lifestyles.

4 out of 5

* Badlands was reclassified 15 in 2008, but that was only for cinema releases. I watched it at home, where technically it’s still an 18. Ah, the BBFC. ^

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