Back To School: Terrence Malick // ‘Badlands’ & ‘Days Of Heaven’

It’s isn’t difficult to take in the entire Terrence Malick oeuvre. The man has averaged one movie per decade since his career began with 1973’s Badlands, giving him a grand total of five films.

It hasn’t stopped Malick from being regarded as one of the most esteemed filmmakers working today, though, and his batting average is pretty good. All of his films are widely admired, and despite his famously excruciating production and editing schedules, none of them are disastrous or easy to dismiss.

Having already seen The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree Of Life, I needed only to catch up with his first two pictures, both from the 70’s — Badlands and Days Of Heaven. (It took him a full twenty years to finish another.)

Badlands is the story of two young lovers who go on a crime spree, but that makes Kit and Holly sound a lot more active than they really are, because the killings in Badlands are some of the most nonchalant, underthought murders to ever grace the screen. A lot of people die in Badlands, and most or all of them don’t have to. Kit does the killing, Holly passively watches — even when the first victim is her stern father (Warren Oates), who Kit shoots seemingly on a whim. Simple-minded Holly, who has been told exactly what to do by this man all her life, lets the new absence of her father mean she’ll go along with whatever Kit says, which includes haphazardly shooting just about anyone they run across. Kit is wild about Holly, though Holly isn’t quite so in love with Kit. She just doesn’t have anything better to do than accompany him on a killing spree.

Probably the most memorable passage in Badlands is when Kit and Holly hide out in the woods, building themselves an elaborate shelter and living off the land. They dance, they read, they fish — they lead simple, uncomplicated lives. But this paradise can’t last, because Kit’s not a very smart criminal, Holly even less so. Kit and Holly wander from place to place seeking security, but everywhere they go, they make greater mistakes that will lead to an inevitable capture. It’s a wonder they get as far as they do. Despite his somewhat random killing pattern, Kit does have some strange, indiscernible code of ethics, and he’s polite to the victims he holds at gunpoint. It’s unnerving because we’re not quite sure what he’s capable of.

Malick keeps us at a distance from Kit and Holly, as we probably prefer to be with their penchant for wanton slayings. We can’t feel too bad for them, given how willfully they set their own their traps, how remorseless they are about all the carnage that piles up in their wake. They’re not exactly evil, because they’re not smart enough to be. They act on impulse, which makes the whole rash of murders feel like an exaggeration of teenage recklessness. (It is based on a true story.) There’s nothing fun or glamorized about their crimes spree, unlike other movies featuring similar situations (Natural Born Killers, Thelma & Louise). They don’t gain anything from the kills — not money, not freedom, not even pleasure. They’re like a blase Bonnie and Clyde.

Badlands is an interesting film, notable for a glimpse at young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in the starring roles (before more notable roles in Apocalypse Now and Carrie, respectively). It’s not a film that has a whole lot of Malick’s signature hallmarks. There is voice over narration, as in all of Malick’s films, and that brief interlude in the woods that has some focus on nature. But stylistically, you might have a hard time identifying it as distinctly Malick. He was still a work in progress at this point.Days Of Heaven, on the other hand, is as Malick as Malick can be. It has gorgeous Oscar-winning cinematography, a lush classical-sounding score, esoteric voice over, Christian themes and imagery, stray shots of nature, and an unhurried flow resulting from a post-production process that took two years. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is widely known to be a bit of a diva, demanding perfection, taking as much time as necessary to get it — budget and schedule be damned. You can’t tell from the films themselves, which have a distinct polish despite a certain amount of meandering. They’re deliberately meandering, and still they seem to represent exactly the film Malick intended to make.

Days Of Heaven is narrated by Linda, a young girl who accompanies her brother Bill (Richard Gere) from Chicago to Texas after a violent altercation. Bill brings along his other “sister” Abby (Brooke Adams), who is actually his girlfriend — but this being the 1910’s, I guess it doesn’t look proper for this unmarried couple to shack up unless they’re related. They get hired laboring for a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) who happens to be dying within the year, according to a doctor. The farmer develops a crush on Abby, so Bill suggests she marry him and collect his riches when he dies, all while allowing him to believe that Bill is her sibling while she is secretly sneaking off to canoodle with him in the middle of the night. What could possibly go wrong?

Well — how about a raging fire, multiple murders, and locusts?

Yeah, that could go wrong.

Days Of Heaven is a slow burn building to a dramatic conclusion. There are many scenes of these people just working, like really working, hard, which helps us appreciate it once the trio is suddenly living the high life off the farmer’s dime. The narrative isn’t propulsive; as with all of Malick’s films, he’s more interested in the casual moments and conversations that happen in between the more dramatic spells. A sequence of a locust attack and subsequent fire is masterfully filmed, but the final confrontation and aftermath are probably the least satisfying aspects of the picture. The final few scenes feel a bit messy and unfocused, without a fully satisfying payoff.

Still, though, Days Of Heaven is a beautiful, awe-inspiring film with a nostalgic sweep of Americana, and one that does much more than Badlands, in my opinion, to signal the arrival of a major auteur.

So thanks, Terrence, for making it so damn easy to see every one of your films.

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