One of the songs heard over the evocative soundtrack of Terrence Malick’s Badlands is ‘Love is Strange’. That sentiment reverberates in the film as a James Dean look-alike (Martin Sheen) blazes a trail of destruction across America’s badlands in the 1950s and his story is lovingly recorded in her journal by the girl Holly (Sissy Spacek)he takes with him. The brutality of his progress is counterpointed by her oddly tender narration and her faulty assessment of what might interest and appeal to her audience. Malick has described the character of the girl as that of ‘an innocent in a drama above her head’ and the boy as a self-regarding ‘poisonous weed’ who might seem ‘like a rebel, but is more like an Eisenhower conservative.’ With the action filtered through a child-like vision, augmented by poetic photography and a hauntingly original soundtrack, the director keeps the audience at some remove from easy moral judgements, detaching them from the horror, intriguing them by the differentness of the characterisation, challenging them with a romanticised impression of murder and madness. Innocence has rarely looked more dangerous, nor myth so insidious.

As his second film, the remarkable Days of Heaven confirmed, Malick is a true original, a Mark Twain for the modern age, with a sensitive eye and ear for the myths that accrete around the American landscape and a complex sense
of childhood, innocence, Nature and fate. He plays word and image against each other, as a wide-eyed young narrator spins an idealised fantasy that finds its justification in beautiful imagery but is contradicted by the enigmatic behaviour of the adults whose significance the narrator fails to see.

U.S.A., 1973.
94 mins.
New 35mm print.

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