It’s always interesting to see a filmmaker’s roots with his first feature film and visit it after you’ve seen a lot of his later works. Like many famous auteur filmmakers, Malick’s debut feature is one of his least known and also, one of his most interesting pictures. We are all accustomed to the Malickian style of cinema; gliding picturesque scenery, natural footage, a fluid frame and meditative voice-overs. Only with Badlands do we begin to understand the ancestry and conception of these techniques that make auteur so unique. Unlike his latest features, Badlands features a very easy-to-follow, basic constructed narrative and a common theme that many debut young directors like to pine on: young love.
The film gives a much more intimate glimpse at Malick’s background and influences as a filmmaker than any of his other features because it is foremost a debut filmmaker who relies heavily on his own history of viewing and reading film (as time wanes on, one begins to form his own style and those influences are much less detectable, unless of course, you are Quentin Tarantino). The main character, Kit (Michael Sheen), is a real-world James Dean and his actions and morals of life are truly that of a rebel without a cause. Badlands narrative takes a lot of influences for its ‘road-trip gone wrong’ theme, such as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and of course, the most obvious of all connections, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde. The camera in the film is very stationary and while there are several instances of nature footage and one fascinating and typical Malickian shot of the camera in chaotic motion (the scene where Kit throws a tantrum in Red’s house), the style of the film is very primitive Malick, and in it’s bare bones, an obvious infantile beginning to a much deeper and effective style built after the filmmakers’ 20 year hiatus from Hollywood.
While there isn’t much to note on the story or the characters, as most of them are but recreations of cinema’s past screen-stealers, the most important thing to take away from Badlands is that it is about a filmmaker taking the first step to becoming a master, and for a person as mysterious and enigmatic as Terrence Malick, Badlands is the perfect place to discover the origin of the myth.