January 8, 2016

Badlands (1972)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Terrence Malik
Stars: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri

What it's about. A crime drama based on the Charles Starkweather / Caril Ann Fugate murder spree in Nebraska and Wyoming during the winter of 1957-1958. The characters are renamed for legal reasons. Sheen is a drifter who begins a relationship with underaged Sissy Spacek. Predictably, her father (Warren Oates) opposes Sheen, and is murdered.

Sheen flees with Spacek, and the two hide out in the wilderness, first near a creek, and later on a cattle range. Sheen also murders when it proves convenient, including former co-worker Cato (Ramon Bieri). At one point, he invades the home of wealthy John Carter, but perhaps due to his meek personality, doesn't kill either him or his maid (Dona Baldwin).

How others will see it. The low budget Badlands caused a moderate sensation at the New York Film Festival. BAFTA nominated Spacek as "Most Promising Newcomer" even though she was an American actress. Warner Bros. ponied up good money for the rights, but the movie stiffed at the box office. Undoubtedly, it has proven a good investment for Warners, given the 45K user votes at imdb.com. It is in the prestigious National Film Registry, added in 1993.

The imdb user ratings are high at 7.9 out of 10. Women over 45, the most interesting demographic due to its independent thought, rate it 8.0 out of 10, apparently convinced by Spacek's go-with-the-flow yet sassy performance.

How I felt about it. Badlands (1973) is, of course, the first film made by Terrence Malik as a director. He had written a few screenplays before, with mixed success. As a low budget movie with a non-union crew, two television actors in the leads, and amateurs in supporting roles, Badlands is surprisingly good. Judged as a Terrence Malik movie, with the quality of Days of Heaven (1978) and (especially) The Thin Red Line (1999) in mind, Badlands is something of a disappointment, much like Martin Sheen's other cult favorite from that decade, Apocalypse Now. But that movie had a vastly higher budget.

Badlands is sufficiently good that it is difficult to determine what is wrong with it. It is trivial to note that Spacek's character gets probation for her accessory to multiple murders, while her real-life counterpart, Fugate, was sentenced to life imprisonment. We should also point out that Sheen's character is less vicious than Starkweather, who murdered the rich man and the maid, and attempted to rape the pretty girl (the Carol King counterpart, no relation to singer-songwriter).

I understand the reason that Fugate accompanied Starkweather on his murder spree. It's the Stockholm Syndrome, the same reason heiress Patty Hearst robbed a bank with a terrorist group. She knew what she was doing was evil, but by the time she would be able to escape, she was already guilty of accessory murder, and getting shot by trigger-happy Starkweather was always a strong possibility.

Still, Sheen does some odd things during this movie. He burns down the house of Spacek's father, and leaves a recording that further implicates him. He wipes off his fingerprints at the rich man's house, yet leaves another voice recording there. We find it hard to believe that Sheen is able to build a perfect tree house near a creek, the one portion of the Midwest most likely to be populated, and is able to hang out there, undetected, apparently for weeks.

It also seems out of character for Sheen to simply give up on the chase and wait to be captured, when he has a head start on the law. Admittedly, he is almost certain to be caught within the hour, assuming the police car has a radio, but he will at least try to escape, especially since luck has already been on his side on several occasions.

It is odd hearing a stupid young psychopath uttering social commentary, such as the burdens of the rich in keeping up their yardwork. Finally, it is difficult to believe that the Law would treat Sheen as some kind of folk hero, instead of a remorseless serial killer.