Badlands announced the arrival of a major talent: Terrence Malick. His impressionistic take on the notorious Charles Starkweather killing spree of the late 1950s uses a serial-killer narrative as a springboard for an oblique teenage romance, lovingly and idiosyncratically enacted by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The film introduced many of the elements that would earn Malick his passionate following: the enigmatic approach to narrative and character, the unusual use of voice-over, the juxtaposition of human violence with natural beauty, the poetic investigation of American dreams and nightmares. This debut has spawned countless imitations, but none have equaled its strange sublimity.
After finally making a deal with Warner Bros. Criterion releases Terrence Malick’s first film, Badlands, on Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The new high-definition transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
Warner’s original DVD (a single-layer flipper disc containing the widescreen version on one side and an open matte version on the other) was one of their early DVD releases and has not aged well over the last decade-and-a-bit. The transfer is heavily compressed, littered with noise, pixilation, edge-enhancement, and a variety of other issues.
The film was in dire need of a new presentation and thankfully Criterion has gone all out. This new one, taken from a new 4k transfer of the original 35mm negative, delivers on all fronts. The image is far more natural looking, very filmic, all issues found in the previous Warner DVD now gone. Objects present clean edges and excellent definition without any sign of edge-enhancement or any other sort of artifact. Film grain is present, getting a bit heavy in places, and is rendered cleanly. The colour tone is a little cooler here in comparison to what I remember from the DVD, but colours are cleanly rendered, with some particularly striking greens and absolutely gorgeous blue skies. A couple of “magic hour” shots also deliver some perfect oranges and reds.
The film has also been beautifully restored and little damage remains, limited only to a few minor marks that you really have to be looking for.
Overall it’s gorgeous, and the long wait for a new presentation (on Blu-ray no less) was well worth it. An absolutely astounding job.
Warner’s DVD presented both a Dolby Digital mono track and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Criterion has stuck to the original mono for this release, presenting it in lossless linear PCM, dropping the 5.1 remix. I’m more than fine with this since I don’t recall the 5.1 track offering much of an improvement. At any rate this new mono track actually offers a significant improvement in terms of quality over both of those tracks. Though dialogue can be a little muffled, an issue that has always been there and more than likely inherent in the source, the track as a whole is very crisp. Music is especially striking, delivering excellent range and fidelity despite the limited nature of mono. There’s a surprising amount of power there and it never comes off truly flat. Quite impressive.
Considering what a huge coup it is for Criterion to get their hands on this title I was a little stunned to see there wasn’t an awful lot here, with barely 2-hours’ worth of material on here, but all of it is at least of excellent quality.
First is a new 41-minute documentary called Making Badlands, which features interviews with art director Jack Fisk, and actors Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The participants, all recorded separately, talk about Charles Starkweather at first, the spree killer who influenced Malick to make the film, and the two actors then talk about being cast and what it was like working with Malick. Fisk talks about the look and design of the film, and how he works to help the actors build their characters. He talks about Malick’s visual sense and how he had to work around that, even attributing some of Malick’s traits (like randomly filming stuff) to his lack of experience, though, of course, that’s just how he works. Everyone shares some anecdotes (Sheen on wearing a hat, and Fisk talking about confronting a rattlesnake) and Sheen talks a little more about his character. The three fondly recall everything about making the film, all participants obviously proud at having been a part of it.
Criterion then includes another interview, a 12-minute one featuring producer Edward Pressman. Pressman covers how he got the funding for the film, having to dig into the credit line for his family’s toy business, and then talks about the shoot itself, getting into more detail about some of the problems encountered. These problems included how they ended up going through three cameramen, or how some of the seasoned pros who worked on the film didn’t like Malick’s style of directing. Distribution also proved to be an issue, despite the fact Warner Bros. ended up picking it up. The film had bombed initially, though a re-release years later proved to be more successful. Pressman also mentions other films he was involved with at the time, like Sisters and The Phantom of the Paradise before moving onto the studio contract he eventually picked up. It’s the shortest feature on here though no less enlightening.
Yet another interview is included, this time with editor Billy Weber, who also appeared in the supplements on Criterion’s releases for both Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Weber has talked about Malick’s style and what it’s like to edit a film with/for him, but here he talks about the formation of what would become the director’s style. He mentions the use of the voice over (influenced in part by Truffaut’s The Wild Child) and montages, and how all the random footage Malick would shoot was edited into the film. Weber also covers the film’s music, the technical difficulties that arose, and an interesting trick that was employed around the animals that appear in the film (which I never, ever noticed before.) They also pulled some footage used in the film (like shots in the clouds) from some unlikely places. Informative and fairly surprising in places it’s another excellent contribution from Weber on Malick’s work.
Probably feeling the need to add some contextualization for those unfamiliar with who Charles Starkweather is (he’s mentioned all throughout the supplements) Criterion has included a 1993 episode of American Justice about the killer and his murderous spree with girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. It covers the murders and the manhunt, complete with photos and archival footage. It then covers the trial, Starkweather’s execution, and Fugate’s fight to prove her innocence. I always liked the show, hosted by Bill Kurtis, because it never exploited the cases it covered and was intent on just delivering the facts in a journalistic manner; it never relied on cheap reenactments that other similar shows relied on. For those unfamiliar with Starkweather or the incidents that influenced Badlands this is a great primer on the case, and I’m happy Criterion licenced it for this release. It runs around 21-minutes.
The disc closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer. The included booklet features an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who writes about Malick’s work, this film, Starkweather, and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Disappointingly it’s a little slim compared to Criterion’s other Malick releases, but Criterion has gathered together a great set of interviews and the inclusion of the Starkweather piece is also an excellent touch.
An absolutely gorgeous presentation of Malick’s first feature-length film, accompanied by some strong supplements, all make this release a must own for all admirers and fans of the film. It comes with a very high recommendation.