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When Kit (Martin Sheen) meets young Holly (Sissy Spacek), it's a match made in cinematic heaven. The pairing of the young couple in Badlands was the beginning of prolific careers for both actors. (The Criterion Collection)

Home Video Review: 'Badlands'

Apr 2, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Time now for a home viewing recommendation from our critic Bob Mondello. This week, Bob is intrigued by the 40th anniversary of the film that put Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and director Terrence Malick on the map — Badlands.

The plot's based on a notorious duo and a real-life 1950s killing spree, but when boy meets girl on-screen in Badlands, they're adorable. She's 15, twirling a baton; he's older, styles himself after James Dean, and is the handsomest guy she's ever met.

A few days later these two have a lot on their minds, what with him having murdered her dad and swept her off on a cross-country trip where things go seriously sour.

At the height of the Vietnam War, Badlands was greeted in critical circles as a portrait of the American psyche short-circuiting, which is not to suggest it was universally liked. Among the disk's extras is an interview with a producer who remembers the comment cards they got at the first sneak, which Warner Bros. had unblinkingly set as a double feature with its then-current hit, Blazing Saddles.

"Not surprisingly," he remembers, "the cards were the worst in the history of Warner Bros. They were just dreadful."

Because director Terrence Malick is famously tight-lipped about his work, it's no surprise that he does no commentary or interviews here. But he did approve Criterion's digital cleanup for Blu-ray. And Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek sat down to reminisce — Sheen, who cranked out 20 TV roles in 1973, about how he very nearly turned this movie down, but then relented.

"Suddenly it hit me," Sheen says, remember the morning after he'd said yes to Malick. "I was gonna play the part of my life. And I wept. Because I knew someone had finally seen something in me that I knew was there, but I couldn't get anyone else to see."

They saw it thereafter — in Spacek, too, and in Malick — all kids for whom Badlands opened vistas wide.

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