James Dean died for our sins.
I have just finished this retrospective by watching one of the most perfectly assembled films that I have ever seen. On first glance, Badlands is nothing more than a Bonnie and Clyde ripoff that adds a dry, flat voiceover to the proceedings. But no, there is no getting caught up in the fun here, the topic is really about young urban people who cannot figure out what their purpose is, and go out to find it, only to be tragically undone. Holly is a shell of a woman and Kit is someone who cannot do anything but rip off a more iconic figure than him in the form of James Dean, and these two broken people are played to the hilt by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. The story may be told in chapters, with the couple failing so badly at play-acting domestic lives that it is heartbreaking, but it is all so blurred and relaxed even as the shots are composed so geometrically.
So these two kids try and detach themselves from the world because of their own imaginations, but it all fails as their car or their bodies ruin the perfect symmetry to be found between the sky and the land even as they go through their murders and dances in the state of a trance or a dream, underscored by that beautiful final shot of the clouds. The wild world is tremendously easy to look at and we want to be there, despite putting up with the hard life of eating grass that tastes like cabbage or hitting cows for food, or just dealing with the sheer pain of emotional inarticulacy on Kit’s end or Holly’s complete lack of personality or affect that leads to her being ignored. Unlike the later movies which unambiguously say that nature is wonderful and civilization is terrible (not a bad thing mind you), here, there is no statement on that. It is merely observed. Epic moments abound, but Malick doesn’t make them climactic. Kit holding a rifle looks like Jesus in that beautiful field, yes, but the camera looks at it so casually that yes, it feels right, we are in a place where a broken boy can become a savior. It is artificial and natural at once thanks to the natural synthesis that our leads are able to force upon this strange new place.
Or maybe I am wrong, but I plan on revisiting this movie many times in the future.
And with that, this retrospective is done. A final ranking for the road:
1. Badlands (10/10)
2. Days of Heaven (10/10)
3. The Tree of Life (10/10)
4. The New World (10/10)
5. The Thin Red Line (9/10)
6. To the Wonder (5/10)
7. Knight of Cups (3/10)
And if anyone has suggestions for a future Director Retrospective, I’m all ears. I only ask for a filmography on the smaller side.