“If there is such a thing as an American tragedy, it must be funny.” – Pauline Kael on Bonnie and Clyde
…because Kit and Holly make Bonnie and Clyde look like a church group. Terrence Malick’s low-budget debut feature told the story of an alienated young couple’s killing spree across the Midwest. The film’s brutal violence and dreamlike imagery turned the heartland of America into a surreal nightmare. Making “Badlands” proved to be a true labor of love for Malick, who raised most of the film’s budget himself and took on multiple jobs to overcome the numerous production setbacks and financial constraints.
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Among directors, Terence Malick has a legendary reputation for being a brilliant visionary. A bold storyteller even by the high standards of New Hollywood (though amazingly, he has managed to release films on a pretty regular basis over the course of the last ten years), “Badlands” introduced many of the characteristics that have become trademarks of his style, such as the imaginative visuals and stream of consciousness voice-over, all of which challenge the viewer to find the connection to the overall story. While the low-budget nature of “Badlands” arguably is Malick at his most constrained (he probably didn’t have the money for a flashback to the age of dinosaurs in the middle of the film), the movie definitely exhibits the philosophical questioning and complicated character portrayals that have made him a revered name among certain critical and filmmaking circles. While Malick definitely isn’t for all tastes, his devotion to telling difficult stories with a unique style should be a call to arms for anyone serious about filmmaking. In fact, “Badlands” grew out of Malick’s frustration with the system, as he had watched his scripts get ruined by the Hollywood machinery, prompting him to make this film on his own terms.
We bet you can fill in the blank by now: film is a ________ medium. Hopefully, you answered visual, and "Badlands" is one of the best examples of why this is true. The visual imagery of "Badlands" is especially impressive when considering how little the film cost, at least relative to the times and expense of equipment. Instead of relying on elaborate sets, Malick literally took advantage of what nature gave him, using the landscape of the Midwest to paint a portrait of his characters’ bleak inner lives. The sun setting over the countryside or lightning flashing in the sky become meditations on the inevitable fate of the couple as they kill their way through their journey. To be fair, much of Malick’s distinct imagery gets assisted by voice-over from Holly, who guides the audience through the film as though it were a maze. The unique aesthetic that Malick developed in "Badlands" has been imitated by countless artsy student filmmakers, but this shouldn’t take away from the film’s overall impact or how directors working with limited resources can find imaginative ways to tell their stories.
Shockingly, even after the success of "Bonnie and Clyde" producers and studios weren’t exactly clamoring to make a film where the main protagonists were nihilistic serial murderers in love. So at a time when it was rare for anyone to produce an independent film, Malick went out and raised $300,000 to make the film the way that he envisioned it, even chipping in some of his own paychecks from studio screenplays. Some of the financial constraints may have worked in Malick’s favor: casting two unknown-at-the-time actors in the lead roles, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, turned out to be a pretty good call. Yet the production of "Badlands" was notoriously tough at the time, with multiple crew members walking off the set due to low pay and arduous work conditions. This required Malick to improvise solutions, many of which involved him taking over multiple roles on set. He even cast himself in one scene in order to avoid paying an actor for the role. In the end, "Badlands" shows us everything that can go wrong for a first-time director, but also how dedication to a project can overcome even the most daunting obstacles.
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