Everyman in Chinatown
SOME MONTHS ago, in a generally unenthusiastic survey of the highly acclaimed work of some young American directors, I mentioned Terrence Malick’s Badlands, one of the great successes of the last New York Film Festival, and a film I hadn’t then seen. I’ve since seen the film, which I think must be said to constitute an imposing directorial debut by any standard. Generically indebted to Bonnie and Clyde and specifically suggested by the 1958 Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate Midwestern murder spree, Badlands has a cool detachment quite unlike the numerous offspring of Bonnie and Clyde, and an intellectual rigor I was unprepared for by the rather genial nature of what I knew of Malick’s previous work: his script for Pocket Money, a film made by another director, with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin as a pair of drifting contemporary cowboys. Stylistically, unlike Pocket Money, Badlands is (apart from one mistaken attempt to recreate some authentic-looking period newsreel footage) impressively of a piece, from the exactingly wrought language of its script (which Malick wrote) to the composition of its hard-edged images (though these are occasionally undercut by a rather too bright and mushily pretty color sense). Indeed, everything about the film seems the product of a director’s controlling intelligence and artfulness to a degree almost alarming in the case of a first film by a director so young. Which is to say that Badlands is exceedingly well-made, and still not to say exactly what it is.
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