Critics Consensus

Terrence Malick's debut is a masterful slice of American cinema, rife with the visual poetry and measured performances that would characterize his work.



Total Count: 54


Audience Score

User Ratings: 26,273
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"He wanted to die with me and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms." A young couple goes on a Midwest crime spree in Terrence Malick's hypnotically assured debut feature, based on the 1950s Starkweather-Fugate murders. Fancying himself a rebel like James Dean, twentysomething Kit (Martin Sheen) takes off with teen baton-twirler Holly (Sissy Spacek) after shooting her father (Warren Oates) when he tries to split the pair up. Once bounty hunters discover their riverside hiding place, Kit and Holly head toward Saskatchewan, leaving dead bodies in their wake. As the law closes in, however, Holly gives herself up -- but Kit doesn't hold it against her, as he basks in his new status as a momentary folk hero. Inaugurating the use of voice-over narration that he would continue in Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick juxtaposes Holly's flat readings of her flowery romance-novel diary prose with the banal and surreal details of their journey. Singularly inarticulate with each other, Kit and Holly are more intrigued by mythic celebrity gestures, as Holly peruses her fan magazines and Kit commemorates key moments before orchestrating a properly dramatic capture for himself (complete with the right hat). The sublime visuals lend a dreamlike beauty to the couple's trip even as their actions are treated casually; Malick neither glamorizes Kit and Holly nor consigns them to the bloody end of their fame-fixated predecessors in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). With the couple's opaque dialogue and Holly's fanzine dream narration, Malick further denies an easy explanation for their crimes. Made for under 500,000 dollars, Badlands debuted at the 1973 New York Film Festival, along with Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, and was released within months of two other outlaw-couple road movies, Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express and Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us. Although Badlands did not make an impression at the box office, its pictorial splendor and cool yet disquieting narrative established Malick as one of the most compelling artists to come out of early-'70s Hollywood. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi

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Critic Reviews for Badlands

All Critics (54) | Top Critics (9) | Fresh (53) | Rotten (1)

  • If a portion of American cinema is going to remain devoted to violence, it could learn a lot by revisiting Malick's thoughtfulness.

    Feb 20, 2018 | Full Review…

    Steve Erickson

    Top Critic
  • In the fall of 1973, one could see signposts of cinema's future in Mean Streets and The Exorcist, yet with this youthful pair of proto-indie dreamers, Malick was paving a whole new road. It turned out to be the path most traveled.

    May 7, 2013 | Rating: 5/5 | Full Review…
  • Days of Heaven put Terrence Malick's intuitions into cogent form, but this is where his art begins.

    Feb 8, 2010 | Full Review…
  • The superb performances from Sheen and Spacek are as memorable as Malick's vision of something akin to hell.

    Aug 29, 2008 | Rating: 4/5
  • Terrence Malick's thriller Badlands (1973), is rightly revered as one of the most astonishing debuts in cinema. Its reissue is a wonderful chance to discover why.

    Aug 29, 2008 | Rating: 5/5 | Full Review…
  • This first, magnificent, outpouring of the sporadic genius of cinema's equivalent to JD Salinger, Terrence Malick, still seems terrifically modern.

    Aug 29, 2008 | Rating: 5/6 | Full Review…

    Wally Hammond

    Time Out
    Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Badlands

  • Aug 15, 2018
    Cinematography - 5/5 stars. The scenes in the wide open spaces of the American west are gorgeous, and director Terrence Malick serves them up to us one after another. Acting - 3/5 stars. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are both strong, and well-cast. Sheen is compelling in a low-key way (though let's calm down on the comparisons to James Dean), and it's hard to believe Spacek was 24 at the time. On the other hand, none of the victims of this pair's crimes show any fear, much less terror. Their collective performances are quite wooden, minimizing the reality and impact of the violence. Honesty - 1/5 stars. Have a look at the real Charles Starkweather's story. We don't see Sheen strangling and stabbing a two-year-old baby, as Starkweather did. We don't see his attempted rape, or various other acts of vicious cruelty. Instead we see him killing people with shots to the chest, and not out of malice. We see him essentially glorified, dancing with Spacek in front of the car's headlights to a Nat King Cole tune, philosophizing ("Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoints of others." etc), and winning over members of the National Guard and law enforcement when caught, tossing them items from his jacket as if he's a rock star. The casualness of violence, the murder of people as if they're animals (which are also ill-treated in the film), America's fascination with gun-toting outlaws, and the ease with which we identify with a sociopath all seem to be a part of the point of film, but I don't think you can have it both ways - to go for that, and to not be authentic. Instead it feels like a young man's fantasy version of a serial killer, and doesn't ring true. I deduct a further half point because for me, it's not a subject that's all that pleasant or heartening to watch. Perhaps that's why it has to be so sugar-coated - wrapped up in beautiful scenes, Spacek's gentle voiceover, and a kind treatment of the killer.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Aug 11, 2014
    Badlands is a solid debut from director Terence Mallick. Sheen had a solid performance and an interesting character, Spaceck well as always her neutrality and naive attitude annoyed me. but hey she was born to play annoying characters. Badlands is cinematic and is easy going, you can tell what's going on if you skip 20 mins if you watched the first 15. And I quite like that. The house burning scene is pure cinema, absolutely stunning.
    Daniel D Super Reviewer
  • Apr 27, 2014
    Terrence Malick's stunning debut feature Badlands ranks among his finest works. Featuring brilliant performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, who have great chemistry on camera, Badlands is a violent tale that manages to be toned down by an easy atmosphere that is one of Malick's signatures, by telling a story with a simple, yet friendly narrative provided by Spacek. Badlands is a tense picture that is quite riveting from start to finish, and Malick captures every tense, thrilling and unforgettable scene through his camera, and pains a graphic, atmospheric portrait of two psychos on a killing spree. Now I must admit, I never was a diehard fan of Malick's work because he tends to make movies that are for a specific audience and they tend to be a tad slow in the way the story unfolds, but visually they've always been stunning, and his style was unique. However I found that most of films were far too ambitious and lacked any memorable story. I'm not saying that I think Malick is a bad filmmaker, quite on the contrary, but I'm simply saying that his work is not for everyone and for me, I've found it hard to find one of his films to really grab my attention. However that's not the case with Badlands, and this is the second feature of Malick's that I've enjoyed, the first being The New World. Badlands is really the easiest film of his to get into, and if you're not into artful pictures, the type of cinema that Terrence Malick is so keen on tackling, then this film is the perfect place to start. The tone of the film is somewhat cheerful, but it works as a way to hide the true nature of the plot, which is absolutely genius in the way that Malick does it. While maintaining of somewhat innocent narrative throughout, Malick is able to grab your attention and you hooked through the two lead characters journey into chaos as they go into their killing spree. Badlands is a great film, and some viewers may disagree but I personally feel that it's Terrence Malick's masterpiece.
    Alex r Super Reviewer
  • Jul 05, 2012
    Down in the badlands, she was saving the best for last!" I'm sorry, but I just had to say that, even though I hate contemporary music... except for "Dani California", which was some good old fashion rocking, as well as quite likely the only good song the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, well, most every musician who was introduced after the '80s have. Hey, I guess not all songs nowadays are absolute toxic sludge, just like how not all Terrence Malick films can be good, or at least not the ones he did before his twenty-year-long hiatus, which isn't to say that his films in the '70s were bad, though they definately weren't all that good. After "Days of Heaven", I would have probably said that Malick could stay on hiatus for all I care, were I not aware of the fact that he was working on his craft and was to return to make films that... are as boring, pretentious and almost laughably badly told as always, though still pretty good, because they at least had much better style, score work and acting to back things up. Now, his older stuff had that, though not nearly as much, and that really cost them, or at least just "Days of Heaven", because this film had the upperhand of being beneficially somewhat different from Malick's later work. Granted, it's also boring and pretentious, though at least this film is different in that its amount of speaking pieces well exceed the amount of narration, which, even then, is still overplayed. Either way, the point is that this film manages to back itself up better than "Days of Heaven" and ultimately transcend mediocrity, though go no further than that, being held back by the problems mentioned, though not stressed enough, seeing as it's hard to stress just how blased flawed a Terrence Malick film is. While lacking in the overly lyrical meditativeness and other aspects that makes even Terrence Malick's good films, at times, tedious, this film remains quite decidedly dull, with a dry quietness, scene dragging and overemphasis on the atmosphere that dulls things down something fierce. To add insult to injury, Malick's atmosphere goes tainted by the kind of arrogance that he's shamelessly flaunted throughout his career, even back when he was just getting up to speed, and that pretension is aggravating when the thing you're being cocky about works. Malick's storytelling isn't just tainted by arrogance, but also general structural flaws, as deep exposition feels a tad lacking, not giving you enough of an opportunity to get a firm grip on the scenario, and it doesn't help that the film gets to be a tad rushed in its progression, yet still make plenty of room for redundance and quite a bit of repetition. Still, Malick has never really cared about story, with even this, most likely his most story-driven film, being real slam-bang in the story department, all for the sake of intentional and artistically experimental exaggeration that really just doesn't work. Certain aspects of our certainly unusual characters seem buyable in broad concept, yet when it comes to expanding on the characters, the slightly far-fetched aspects go blown out of proportion, while completely unbuyable aspects go crowbarred in, and with not enough care being put into our characters' development or, well, for that matter, humanity, most every person in the cast comes off as not all that likable. Oh boy, the critics were sure right when they said that this film gives you a feel for Malick's style, though what they don't tell you is that it gives you too much of a taste, making for a mess of a final product and, by extension, debut for Malick that could have fallen to the level of the following "Days of Heaven", if not lower, and a film doesn't get much lower before it becomes all-out bad. However, surprisingly, this film transcends even mediocrity, standing as still not even close too as good as the work by Malick upon his return from extended hiatus (I'm still not crazy about that stuff either, so calm down, you overrating art snobs), though still standing as enjoyable, and for reasons that aren't the easiest to explain, though I'm still going to try. He may not be able to tell a story to save his life, though I think that we can all at least agree that Terrence Malick is a hardly paralleled champ at art direction, being able to summon masterful work from cinematographers and compliment the visual beauty with audible grace, via a fantastic taste in score work, yet here, while you do get the pretty good music (Though actually mostly not much more than pretty good), the trio of cinematographers don't really come close to knocking it out of the park. However, that is, in fact, further testament to Malick's awesome art direction ability, as he is able to work with the limitations in a still very subtle (Though perhaps too much so) and graceful fashion, whether it be in his playing with the sound design to profoundly pronounce the sounds of the environment or playing with scope, and while those stylistic methods that Malick does to death actually dull things down beyond belief, they often, at the same time, help in planting you into his world, rocky though, it may be. On top of that, while the stylistic choices still intesify the pretensiousness of this Malick film - like it does all others -, their relative simplicity boasts a kind of charm that all but balances out the arrogance and leaves the film to win you over, perhaps not as much as the Malick films that really do up the art (Except for "Days of Heaven", and even then, I couldn't hate the film, being that is was so undeniably pretty), yet still enough to where you stick with it. That relative comfort, alone, is what sets this above Malick's mess of a follow-up that was "Days of Heaven", while what locks in the superiority are the engrossing performances, or at least just one in particular. No one is bad, yet most people simply play their parts, and that even includes leading lady Sissy Spacek, who may be better than the aforementioned most, being that she is charismatic and in such a high role position, yet isn't much more than workmanlike. No, ladies and gentlemen, the real stealer of the show is Martin Sheen, who may not be given enough material to really kill things dead, or at least acting-wise that is (He's playing a murderer people... tha-, that was going for), yet still really delivers, marrying static charisma with uneasingly subtle intensity and unpredictability in his playing up the eccentricites and mysteries behind the Kit Carruthers character, who may not be all that compelling in concept, considering the aformentioned far-fetched aspects behind him, yet is still irresistible, being made so by Sheen's off-putting, yet engrossingly charismatic and mysterious performance. Yeah, well, that's all I've got, so it's safe to say that the flaws exceed the strengths, yet what strengths there are really do win you over, easily not like Malick's more recent efforts, which are competently crafted enough to where you still can't forget the flaws as potential-squanderers, yet can still enjoy the final products as genuinely good, though when it's all said and done, I suppose Malick's debut is worth a shot...; certainly more than "Days of Heaven". Getting down to the badlands-I mean, getting down to the bottom line (Sorry, my mind is still stuck on "Dani California"), while the film isn't quite as dull as other Terrence Malick efforts, it remains rather boring, as well as a bit pretentious in its quietness, dragging and overall dry atmosphere, with spotty story structure and characters who are hard to buy to the point of being somewhat unlikable further beating at the film's steam, leaving it to run the risk a slipping into, at best, mediocrity, an event that surprisingly doesn't materialize, thanks to Malick's nifty and immersive stylistic and atmospheric choices (which remain relatively simple in a charming fashion) that do win you over, while a particularly show-stealingly charismatic, mysterious and altogether upstanding performance by Martin Sheen amerliorates the engagement value, thus leaving "Badlands" to stand as a perhaps too revealing debut for Malick that shows a bit too much of what I'm not crazy about from him, yet still an enjoyable start for the artistic non-storyteller, regardless of its faults. 2.5/5 - Fair
    Cameron J Super Reviewer

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