With only a half dozen films released over the past 40 years, director Terrence Malick has already earned his place among the greatest American filmmakers. Despite his relatively small filmography, he has carved out a distinct brand of filmmaking that inspires (sometimes as much as it confuses or bores). But before he was an admired and respected filmmaker, he was just a former Rhodes scholar that graduated from Harvard working as a philosophy professor at MIT. His first film, Badlands, began to take take shape as he studied film at the American Film Institute. It was immediately hailed by critics on its initial release in 1973, where it was the closing night film at the New York Film Festival. That year's festival also saw the debut of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streetsm proving that 1973 was not only a very good year for film, but a landmark year for new voices. Both films were sold to Warner Brothers on the same day.
Set in South Dakota in the 1950s and loosely based on the real-life incident of Charles Starkweather who went on a killing spree with his teenage girlfriend in 1958, Badlands follows former garbage man Kit Carruthers (played by Martin Sheen in the role that established his own career in film, having working almost exclusively in television up until then) as he and his 15-year-old girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek in only her second film) take off cross-country after Kit kills Holly's disapproving father. Although seen as rebels (Kit is often compared to the original rebel without a cause, James Dean), the two are more simple-minded than that. They seem to be going along for a ride not quite knowing what they're doing or why exactly they're doing it.