Badlands

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(1973) ★★★★★

BBC2: Friday 20 November, 11.35pm

“Give you a dollar for eatin’ this collie,” says Martin Sheen to his colleague, binman Ramon Bieri. “I ain’t eatin’ it for a dollar,” says Bieri. “I don’t think it’s a collie either. Some kind of dog though.” Shiftless 25-year-old drifter Sheen can’t hold down a job, not even with Johnny’s Trash Service. But he knows what he wants. Recognition. And 15-year-old schoolgirl Sissy Spacek, who he spies twirling a baton on the front lawn of her daddy’s South Dakota home. “He wanted to die with me and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms,” Sissy narrates, from her diary.

He dreaded the idea of being shot dead alone, without a girl at his side to scream out his name. They’re on the run after Sheen shot her dad dead, a sudden act of violence preceded by one of the most banal but chilling lines in 70s cinema: “Suppose I shot you? How’d that be?” If they make it to Canada, Sheen thinks maybe he could get a job with the Mounties. Inspired by the real-life Charlie Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate case of the 1950s, Badlands is is so good it hurts.

Superbly acted by Spacek and, especially, Sheen (openly aping James Dean), it’s stunningly shot by first-time director Terrence Malick. He went on to make the equally ravishing Days of Heaven before quitting movies for twenty years to teach film-making. Notoriously camera shy, Malick actually appears on screen in Badlands in a minor speaking role – he’s the man on the porch in the panama hat. The Thin Red Line marked Malick’s triumphant return to films in 1998, although subsequent features have been increasingly wispy. Badlands remains his most uncluttered film and it leaves a lasting impression.

It certainly seems to have impressed Quentin Tarantino, most of whose work is clearly based on it. Even the haunting theme (Musica Poetica by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman) was adapted by Hans Zimmer for the True Romance soundtrack. So successfully, it seems, that Malick asked Zimmer to score The Thin Red Line.

Certificate: 15
Duration: 94min

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