Terrence Malick

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973)

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973)

  • Born: 1943
  • Rank: 49
  • Score: 574.45
  • Awards: 2 NYFC / NSFC / CFC
  • Nominations: Oscar / DGA / Golden Globe
  • Feature Films: 4
  • Best: Badlands
  • Worst: A New World

Feature Films (ranked):

  1. Badlands – 1973
  2. The Thin Red Line – 1998
  3. Days of Heaven – 1978
  4. A New World – 2005

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1974 – 4th – Badlands
  • 1978 – 8th – Days of Heaven
  • 1998 – 3rd – The Thin Red Line

Is there any great director who has been less prolific than Malick? People like Beatty and Olivier who made few films in their career were primarily actors who also directed. Jacques Tati only made 5 films, but he only spread them out among 20 years. In the last 35 years, Malick has made 4 films and went 20 years between his 2nd and 3rd films. It was a film geek’s wet dream in 98 and 99 when Malick and Kubrick finally ended their absences.

Malick has been a bit like Thomas Pynchon.  He had his first critically acclaimed work which I still hold to be his best (I prefer Crying to Gravity), his second work which I think is strong but somewhat over-rated, then a large gap before becoming a bit more prolific (Malick’s fifth film, Tree of Life, is due out next year) and is extremely camera and publicity shy.

Badlands – #6 film of 1974

Just as in music where so many people were cursed with the label “the next Bob Dylan,” for so many years actors were described as being “the next James Dean.”  But in the 54 years since Dean’s death no single performance has more evoked Dean’s style, presence and charisma than Martin Sheen in Badlands.

Badlands is a great film (it’s #6 in 1974 but would make the top 5 in most years) and there are a number of reasons for that.  The first of course is the talent of Terrence Malick in making one of the top debut films of all-time.  It is well written and extremely well directed, never lacking in energy, never slowing down, always involved in its characters.

The second is the story itself.  Malick dresses up the Starkweather homicides and makes them into a fascinating portrait of young crime, a film that owes a lot to Bonnie and Clyde but goes in a different direction.  The film made such an impact on Bruce Springsteen (like Sheen, the one who most lived up to the label placed on him) that he wrote first, a song (“Badlands”), then, later, an entire album (“Nebraska”).

Then there is the casting of Sissy Spacek.  Sissy Spacek has long been one of the most under-rated actresses around.  As she says in the movie “I wasn’t popular in school on account of having no personality and not being pretty.”  Spacek was never as good looking as most actresses and she never seemed to have a personality and was so believable as this young messed up girl, but between this, Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Missing, Affliction and In the Bedroom has proved to be one of the best actresses of her generation.

But the star of this film is Martin Sheen.  Growing up in the eighties, I first thought of Martin Sheen as Charlie and Emilio’s dad, but that was before I saw Apocalypse Now and before I saw Badlands.  In Badlands, you can see the charisma that Charlie and Emilio would later have, but you also see energy and you see a performance unlike anything since Dean’s death.  It is that same kind of method acting, an off-shoot of what Brando had (there is also an echo of early Brando – Heath Ledger in Brokeback), but a unique kind of acting.  Sheen never really gave a performance like that again (in Apocalypse he’s great, but in a different way), but for one film, it was like James Dean was back.