Badlands is on the one hand very clear in the way it presents and feels about its thesis – a product most chiefly of its narrative structure and script. On the other hand, however, Badlands is a poetic ode to the industrialization of the human soul as it journeys (both physically and metaphysically) across the desolate landscapes of the American midwest in hopes of finding what it already possesses: purpose.
9 - Manages to be beautiful despite forgoing ostentation, and walks the tightrope of insightfulness without ever dipping its toes in the waters of sententiousness. It's also short, nuanced and free of any excess fat, and it noticeably comes from a place of fondness and comprehension despite being a critique, as if Malick is assuming the mantle of a concerned parent underneath that cold veneer.
The grace and elegance in its whimsical acting and the recherche mood makes Badlands a serial killer film of tenderness. The minimalism in plot construction gives it a common lovers-on-the-lam vibe, and despite its beauty, there isn't much meaning to the style outside of a dreamy quality. The final act, however, gives the story meaning as we wonder why we are so fascinated with these killers in the first place.
Malick's knack for visual beauty is paired here with uncharacteristic philosophical purpose to stunning effect. An ode to Americana, Malick avoids the trappings that are seemingly inherent to films dealing with similar context and instead presents a spiritual reflection on the true American spirit, embodied in the idealistic Kit (who kills not for pleasure), starkly juxtaposed against Holly's return to slave-society.
Unlike Malick’s second film, his first nails the emotion that was lacking, and gives a beautiful, tender, and frightening view of young love on the run, and the recklessness of the free soul. His filmmaking is lyrical and beautiful, transcending its setting and hitting the heart of human nature and the natural world, and the inner longings, thoughts, and desires of his subjects on screen. Great performances too.
3 stars for Martin Sheen: he has our sympathies; we root for him. Also strong in this film is the depiction of this impression that I'm sure we all get of just "gliding through life" in detachment without much true care, just being led about and unable to tell what is and isn't.