They cross paths in a sleepy Texas town. He throws trash, she twirls baton. He’s a figure that seems to have walked out of a dream, or out of the movies, an orphan, without ties; she’s a child still, living with her widower father, waiting to be formed. Dressed in denim and a white tee stretched across his chest, he’s the handsomest man she ever met. He’s also very polite. And what is it that attracts him to her? Her gawky beauty? Her awe? Perhaps it is a matter of pure innocence—though in the end his naïveté seems even greater than hers, sustained by a peculiar solipsism which is unnervingly endearing, is perhaps a distinctly American, and leads to murder and folk-celebrity.
Terrence Malick’s feature debut remains so wondrous and strange—it never releases its mysteries, and it never gets old. Yet Badlands (1973) can also seem straightforward, almost a genre piece, a story of lovers on the run drawn from recent U.S. history: the senseless killing spree undertaken by Charles Starkweather and his captive/lover/possible collaborator Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Malick’s couple falls far short of the violence and depravity of their models; violence is almost incidental to them, happening outside of their agency, largely bloodless or something that can be set fire to and feel dazzled and warmed by. Both are searching for roles to inhabit. Kit (Martin Sheen) is always acting, playing with some vague idea of the misguided antihero. Hands in his pockets, he declares, “I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m lucky that way.” But how to get anyone other than Holly (Sissy Spacek) to listen? Killing people always draws attention. They start with Holly’s father (a cameo role for the great Warren Oates), before moving elsewhere, living outdoors for a spell, stealing cars, crossing state lines. Kit’s kill-list seems bafflingly random; he’s making it up as he goes along, and preparing his public statements for his inevitable moment of capture. And all the while we hear Holly’s voice, floating dreamlike on the soundtrack, narrating their adventure as though it’s to be read in the pulpy pages of some variant of True Romance with a mildly surrealistic streak: “He wanted to die with me and I wanted to be lost in his arms forever… I spelled out entire sentences on the roof of my mouth where no one could find them.” Both characters focus themselves on speaking to posterity, not living in the moment but rather observing the moment from afar. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to kill folks.
Immaculately crafted, imbued with music that never emphasizes dread (most notably the Carl Orff piece performed by children), suffused with the sort of images of nature’s glorious indifference that would become part of its director’s signature (see The Thin Red Line  et al), Badlands plays like a propulsive narrative as you watch it but hovers forever in memory as a scrapbook of images and sounds: the wedding cake that spent a decade in the ice-box, the launching of a balloon, the little house on an arid plain filled with a life’s collection of curious useless objects whose meaning is lost with the death of its sole inhabitant. A most welcome addition to the Criterion Collection, Badlands new DVD and Blu-ray edition features a marvelous series of interviews with Malick’s steady production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Webber, and with Sheen and Spacek, so extraordinary both, speaking of how Malick saw something in them that no one else did, changed their careers as a result—and changed film history, too.