Badlands is back, on general release, more than a year after it opened and ignominiously folded across the country. Then it was touted as a companion film to Steve Spellberg's Sugarland Express: both rural road movies with a fifties atmosphere, both by young and unknown directors. Spellberg's film, which was lighter and more abourdiet, was a success, and Spellberg has just made the biggest box-office movie of all time. Terry Malick, who made Bedlands, would have submerged again but for somehow flanging this re-lease, and no doubt being pleased that a bally of critics have sung its praises to the skies upon its return.
But the film is not that special--its reputation has the inflated air of the underground favorite. Martin Sheen is a bored youth in a fifties town in the Dakotas. Nothing is happening. He and a young woman he picks up take off, heading nowhere, playing out occasional fantasies, not saying much, and eventually committing a few senseless murders. You identify with them, of course--they're all the movie gives you--and it's sad to see them caught by the police (one of whom is Harvard professor John Womack-don't even try to figure that out), especially when they don't really know what's going on. But they're so unaware and insulated from the terrain upon which moral judgements are made that their crimes are uninteresting, and you never see the connection to 1950's America or whatever is supposed to justify their deadhead lost-child innocence-turned-guilt. Malick shows gory murders, then our sympathetic characters, and the inevitable tearing-apart this inflicts on the audience is supposed to pass for ambiguity and profanity. Well made by Malick, well acted, but all in all kinds boring and overrated, considering the fuss it's been getting.