Joshua Reviews Terrence Malick’s Badlands [Blu-ray Review]


There is anticipation, and then there is whatever emotion cinephiles felt, eagerly hoping that Terrence Malick’s debut film, Badlands, would crop up on Criterion’s monthly announcement of what they would be releasing three full months down the line. Long talked about as one of the great “gets” for the Collection, it has long been one of the most talked about and deeply sought after rumored members of the Criterion Collection. And now, it’s finally here.

Tuesday marks the release of Criterion’s brand new DVD and Blu-ray of Malick’s masterful debut film, and thankfully, it more than lives up to the monstrous anticipation.

The debut for the film world’s foremost poet, Malick marked his territory with this dream-like drama of love and violence. Badlands tells the story of Kit and Holly, a garbage collector and a young baton-twirling girl who fall in love. Based on the Starkweather-Fugate murders in 1958, the film follows this oddly matched pair of lovers as they take their lives into their own hands, leaving violence in their wake. A brazenly melancholic look at the corruption of innocence by images in society, Badlands is as influential a film as any Malick has made to date, and one that is as timeless as any made since.

When discussing a film as artistically driven from behind the camera, the director is the most important cook in the cinematic kitchen.  Arguably the least Malick-esque picture that Terrence Malick has made to date, the film’s aesthetic still fits within the director’s canon. As meditative aesthetically as anything he’s made, the film may lack the free flowing camera that made Tree Of Life the blitzkrieg of art that it became, but it doesn’t lack Malick’s impressionism. Each frame acting as a tableau flowing into the next, Badlands features glorious photography from the trio of Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn, the film’s photography is full of life and vitality, allowing Malick’s visual plaintiveness to truly come to life and pop off of the screen.

The performances are equally as brilliant. Driven entirely by the leads Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the film is icy visually, but beautifully evocative in its performances. Sheen plays Kit, a man seemingly inspired by everything ranging from classic Westerns to James Dean, and is the physical manifestation of the film’s greater themes. Inherently about the corruption of innocence by the images seen in popular culture, Sheen’s Kit is driven entirely by image. Even the mention of bearing slight resemblance to Dean gets a self-affirming smirk out of Kit, and the film uses various bits of iconography to prove this point as well.

And then there is Spacek, an actress who has truly never been better. From the first moment we see Holly, we see a young and innocent, baton twirling girl who has caught the eye of a much older man, and herself become engulfed by interest and passion for the man.  A trope seen today in films like Spring Breakers, this character isn’t all that new, but what Spacek does here is give a beautiful sense of life into a performance that could be fodder for histrionics. She plays as the film’s narrator as well, one of the earliest touchstones of Malick’s feature work, and her voice is as angelic and engrossing as her performance on screen. The chemistry between the two stars is believable and kinetic, adding to a romance that speaks to something far greater than just the love two people share. You truly feel that these two have some sort of connection (take the really great, if short, segment of the two dancing to ‘Love Is Strange’ for example), and it works in ways that a film of this nature truly has no right in working.

Toss in fantastic work from art director Jack Fisk and composer George Tipton, Badlands is as moving a film as Malick has made up to this moment in his career. And thankfully, Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray release is justly superb.

The transfer here is, as to be assumed, breathtaking. One of the collection’s greatest transfers this year, it’s ability to enhance the colors and the sound work is truly moving. Malick’s work here is admittedly quiet, but the color schemes used aren’t, and they truly come to life here with this new 4k transfer. There are interviews with associate editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman, a trailer and even an episode of the TV program American Justice, looking at the Starkweather killings. However, the “Making Badlands” documentary is the real reason to grab this release as soon as possible. Clocking in at just under an hour, the feature looks at the making of the film and what has come of it since, using interviews with Sheen, Spacek and Fisk to weave the tale. It’s a deeply informative look at a film whose director, Terrence Malick, has no interest in talking about his work. As close to an interview with the reclusive filmmaker as we’ll ever get, this is truly a sight to behold. Finally, the artwork adorning the film’s cover is odd at first glance, but in person, the cover really pops off the shelf, and the painted aesthetic really fits the type of film it’s used to promote.

Overall, this is as important a release as Criterion has given us to date. Featuring a making of supplement that may be one of the best they’ve had on a release in some time, Criterion’s transfer for Malick’s debut film is definitive, and the film itself is as great a debut film as we’ve ever seen. A film worthy of the highest hyperbole one could spout, this release is just the absolute best thing we’ve seen on home video up to this point in 2013. And if there’s a better release on the way, it’s going to be something truly special.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.