Dir: Terrence Malick
Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates
Confession time: until I watched Badlands for the first time this week, I had never seen an entire Terrence Malick film. I know he's kind of a big deal among movie nerds, and I tried watching The Thin Red Line a time or two (which, in all honesty, I found insufferable), but for the most part his work has passed me by. For what it's worth, I liked Badlands quite a bit, though it's difficult to express emotion about a movie that is almost clinically detached from its characters and situations.
Sheen and Spacek are Kit & Holly, murderous young lovers on the run based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, notorious real-life killers who terrorized Nebraska in 1958. The film is highly fictionalized (hence the change in character names), but still sticks fairly close to some details of Starkweather and Fugate's murder spree.
The low-key approach proves chilling, especially in the scenes where Sheen commits murder almost as an offhand impulse. The murders aren't set up as action scenes or suspense sequences, only as the inevitable conclusions to crossing paths with Sheen and Spacek. The violence isn't glamorized or played up in any way, and that only serves to deepen the impact of it.
I've seen other takes on the Starkweather/Fugate story (most notably the TV miniseries biopic Murder In The Heartland with Tim Roth & Fairuza Balk, and Oliver Stone's infamous Natural Born Killers with Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a couple clearly inspired by Starkweather and Fugate), and while they were good this works on another level.
Spoilers ahead (as much as one can spoil a 38-year-old movie based on a true story): towards the end, after Sheen has been arrested, he is seen giving mementos to the deputies. His pen, his comb, his lighter...he's a celebrity, after all, why not act accordingly? It's an oddly unsettling moment, and it's part of what makes the movie as a whole work so well. It doesn't examine his motives or his personality, but it shows how cognizant he is of what he's done and the fact that it makes him a celebrity (which Stone handles with significantly less subtlety in Natural Born Killers). The scene is almost funny, despite the tragic events leading to it.
It's been about a week since I've seen the movie, but it's still on my mind. Haunting and lyrical when it could easily have been sleazy and exploitative, it made me want to seek out more of Malick's work and learn more about the true story that inspired it.