Director Martin McDonagh on Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’

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Martin McDonagh. Photo credit: Greg Williams

One of director Martin McDonagh’s favorite “pieces of cinema” is Terrence Malick’s 1973 directorial debut film “Badlands,” starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Malick’s neo-noir crime drama, loosely based on a real-life crime from 1958, follows 15-year old Holly Sargis (Spacek), who goes on a killing spree with her partner, Kit Carruthers (Sheen). 

McDonagh, whose latest film is the Oscar-nominated “The Banshees of Inisherin,” says he learned what a “proper master writer-director” does from watching “Badlands” – a movie he revisits whenever he’s preparing a new project.   

“Badlands,” also written and produced by Malick, was selected by the National Film Registry for Preservation for its cinematography and soundtrack while the Library of Congress chose it for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. 

More: 'Banshees of Inisherin' director Martin McDonagh on his films' deceptive logic

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

I've loved [“Badlands”] since I was 13 or 14-years old. I loved acting up until that point, and I liked Martin Sheen I think even before this movie, but this was the first time that I realized, especially what a writer-director does, that he or she chooses the music, which, in this film, is based on a lot of classical pieces, found pieces, but also design and, of course, acting.

The two performances in “Badlands” by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are so memorable. But also the idea of a narration as a piece of art in a movie.

[Terrence Malick] does it again in his later film “Days of Haven” when Linda Manz narrates in a very strange, almost childlike way the story, but in this one the writing is impeccable. Sissy Spacek’s narration [is] almost like she's just reading out of a teen magazine as [an] overview of a horrible story that was based on a real-life killing spree. But listen to the words of [what’s] coming out of Sissy Spacek’s mouth and out of Terrence Malick's, cuz she almost doesn't see or understand what the hell's going on in that place. 

[“Badlands”] is one of those movies I watch every, probably six months, every year, definitely before I make one. Every time it just pulls me in. The story is horrible, and it shouldn't be as romantic and beautiful as it is, but it's mesmerizing. So the combination of all those things: acting and music and cinematography, and the weirdness of a piece of narration, I think it's probably one of the first times that I got what a proper master director does.



Rebecca Mooney