If you last saw Terrence Malick’s Badlands closer to its 1973 release than 2013, you probably retain a sense of gauzy plains sunsets, a James Dean-channeling young Martin Sheen wooing a baton-twirling baby Sissy Spacek, and Spacek’s voiceover as wide-eyed Holly, her monologue bearing all the naiveté and grandeur of teenage diary entries. What you may not remember as clearly are all the squibs exploding gore from all the gutshots Sheen’s Kit deals to his victims, from sheriff’s deputies to random strangers to Holly’s father. Malick’s trademark lyricism was in full bloom in his very first film, and many of his auteurial touches—from “magic hour” shooting to disapproving patriarchs—well established. But the Criterion Collection’s new DVD/Blu-ray issue reintroduces a film that’s far flintier and more fraught than Malick’s current rep suggests, and a film surprisingly well-suited to the 21st century.
After all, Malick’s debut fictionalizes the 1958 high-plains killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, a budding psychopath and his teenage girlfriend, respectively, who murdered 11 people. So while Malick’s film is set in the 1950s so popular among the Baby Boomer filmmakers of the New American Cinema ’70s, Kit is a dead-end garbageman wearing garish tooled cowboy boots, not an Eisenhower milquetoast. Holly is a dreamy-to-the-point-of-abstraction girlchild; only her voiceover indicates any depth at all beneath her placid ginger surface. Her sexual initiation is presented obliquely, and the aftermath is matter of fact and unimpressed. Her affect remains flat, for the most part, when Kit shoots her father (Warren Oates) for standing in the way of their love. There’s no debate when they burn down her house and hit the road.
From there, Malick alternates between lyrical passages of young love on the run—Kit and Holly build a tree house to hide out in, at one point—and implacable murder. In one indelible moment, Kit imprisons a young couple and then tries to kill them anyway, although “trying” seems too deliberate a word for what he does. He inflicts random violence on them, heedless of the consequences, good or ill. All the while Holly remains his impassive helpmate, until their outlaw life begins to fray even her disengagement. Malick’s detractors carp on his reliance on externalized interior broodings, but here the device proves of particular value. Not only do they map out a character’s inner world in ways rarely captured in the medium (“I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of mouth where nobody could read them”), they make clear Holly’s very modern-feeling distance from the mayhem and suffering she and her beau bring with them wherever they go. (A Blade Runner-style cut with the voiceover stripped out would make a fascinating comparison.) The scale and ambition of mature Malick efforts such as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life might make this comparatively modest film seem like juvenilia from a distance. Coming back to it via this luscious Criterion transfer affirms its uncharacteristically unambiguous power.
As shocking as Kit’s treatment of the imprisoned couple is, it can’t compare with the surprise of what happens to Marion Cotillard’s character about half an hour in to French writer/director Jacques Audiard’s latest, Rust and Bone. (Note: The rest of this paragraph contains a significant spoiler.) You’ve already met Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a scuffling hand-to-mouth boxer newly in custody of his 5-year-old son (Armand Verdure), and he’s already met beautiful Stephanie (Cotillard) after a gallant rescue at a nightclub where he’s bouncing. No sooner do you find out that Stephanie trains killer whales (!) at a Sea World-style theme park than she loses both legs (!!!) in an accident during a show.
As he did in his 2009 breakout, A Prophet, Audiard knits together gritty realism with bold stylization, here in service of creating a cinematic world in which these two equally disparate characters can find common ground, and even a bond. That bond remains satisfyingly unpredictable. At first a kind-hearted if unexpected friend who drags Stephanie out of her apartment and her funk, Ali adds uncomplicated sex to the mix. Of course, what’s uncomplicated for one won’t necessarily remain uncomplicated for another.
“Uncomplicated” applies to almost nothing in Rust and Bone other than Ali’s appetites. In addition to the relationship between the protagonists, there’s the father-son thread, Ali’s attempts to turn unsanctioned free-for-all bouts into some kind of a career, strained family relations and strained labor relations, and, at the 11th hour, a harrowing scene that astonishes anew with its pulse-racing power—and at Audiard’s audacity at shoehorning it in to his already overstuffed emotional epic. Those emotions are always near the surface, thanks to Cotillard’s brilliant performance and Schoenaerts’ deft work as the Ginger to her actorly Fred. Rust and Bone can’t steer clear of melodrama in the end, but if only every contemporary melodrama was so lyrical, and so well done.