Criterion has published a stunning high-definition edition of Malick’s extraordinary debut, the 1973 Badlands. The director’s new feature, To the Wonder, is also now out in theaters and also available on other platforms. I first caught it at Toronto, and I saw it a second time, on 35mm, just recently. (More about it later.)
Malick’s career is unorthodox though hardly unprecedented. The other night in Chicago, following a screening in 35mm of his 1977 Sorcerer, the director William Friedkin, lamented he did not come of age during the studio-era, where he could have signed four or five films a year. One of the problems when you make six films in forty years is the pressure to constantly top yourself.
Criterion has also just published a deluxe version of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Like Paul Brickman, who made Risky Business, Cox is a gifted director who had an auspicious start, but then grew disillusioned with the system, because of the money required to make movies, the artistic compromises necessary to sustain a career, and he took his work in a different and more personal direction. He forfeited his audience in the process.
Malick made two startling works, Badlands and Days of Heaven, five years apart and then promptly disappeared. His third feature, The Thin Red Line, is clearly the transitional work between his narrative and the increasingly abstracted, experimental vein his work is now aggressively moving.
Nowadays, films seems to exist in two modes of expression: hand-made or industrial. The hand-made, essayistic, personal, intransigent, unfold almost exclusively in the margins. (By the way, check out the very fine accompanying essay on the Criterion Badlands by the excellent Michael Almereyda, another gifted director whose work is regrettably out of fashion and too often out of view).
Malick put up a lot of his own money to make Badlands, and what’s interesting with the advantage of hindsight is how free and incautious much of the movie is.
With Badlands, Malick announced a particular narrative architecture that would yoke together his thematic and dramatic concerns: period settings, voiceover as narrative contrapuntal, lyrical, tangible sense of physical beauty that meditates on the form and grammar of silent cinema, with an emphasis on landscape, physical gesture and the beauty of the human face.
Thematically, Malick circles on the theme of doomed love, the death of nature, a restrictive social order, or a world marked by a lost or violated Eden.
Malick’s script for Badlands was clearly modeled on the story of Charles Starkweather, the psychopathic spree killer who murdered eleven people in the late fifties, with his frightened teenaged accomplice and girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, in tow. The director’s first two features, shaped by an Old Testament vengeance, are dominated by imagery rooted in fire and water, and colored by a willful innocence violated.
They are also linked by the tremulous voices of its young female narrators, Holly (Sissy Spacek), in Badlands, and Linda Manz, in Days of Heaven. Badlands is also part of a wondrous and cherished movie American past (You Only Live Once, They Live by Night, Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde).
However mythological the movie, it is filled with pain and torment. The filmmaking is exciting, the acting revealing, but the movie is staggering and awful because of what we see and feel. The violence in Badlands is frightening, eruptive and appalling. In the movie, the Starkweather figure is called Kit, a laconic, disturbed psychopath played by Martin Sheen.
Perfectly cast, Sheen laces every move, feeling and action with a stripped down, blank amorality. After the first murder, of Holly’s father (Warren Oates), a sign painter, the young fugitives light out to the outback while retaining as much as possible their childlike accoutrements, a deranged fantasy life of tree-houses, face paint and peculiar make-believe.
As their victims accumulate, the road is desultory, alienating and self-annihilating. The vast stretches of open spaces are not just empty, but withholding, evoking a continual state of dread and nothingness. In the extraordinary tactile and velvety night imagery, Holly says, they exist in an in-between world that goes beyond loneliness. Before he kills, Kit barely exists, a nowhere man hardly anybody would be capable of noticing.
The discontinuous arrangement of shots boldly compresses time and space and creates a hallucinatory visual texture whose effect draws you deeper and deeper into the storytelling rhythm. Watching it again, Badlands reminded me of just how natural and formidably gifted an imagemaker Malick is. How thrilling, as Friedkin said after the Sorcerer screening, to watch films made in the era before the image was consistenly perverted by digital and computer manipulation.
I know for some other writers, critics and observers who have followed Malick since the beginning, they have a different kind of lament, not at how few films he has made since Badlands but a profound and sharp disappointment at the direction his work has taken. Malick has now made as many films (three) in the last seven or eight years as he made in the previous thirty-two.
I disagree with those ideas but I certainly understand them. I can think of no other director who has inspired such volatile debate. Personally, I just want the films to continue.
The more, the better.
Images courtesy of Criterion.