Was Terrence Malick a genius with a clear directorial vision or a newcomer with no clear idea on what he wanted to do? It’s perfectly understandable to derive one or the other – or both – when watching Badlands, the directorial debut filled with existential stagnation.
I like Malick (particularly Thin Red Line & New World) less than most cinephiles, but I was pleasantly surprised by how different this was. Something I don’t think you picked up on is how comedic it is. We’re not supposed to take anything Sheen says seriously, and his girlfriend’s voiceover is supposed to sound naive. I was surprised you referred to them both as being killers, because I don’t think Sissy Spacek’s character ever kills anyone. She’s not a psychopath like Sheen, she merely has a muted reaction to his behavior. An even more comedic version of this where they both turn out to be psychopaths is Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers”, although that British style of comedy is hard to compare to Malick’s. Kelly Reichardt’s feature debut “River of Grass” is sort of a less violent take on this lovers-on-the-run premise, except they’re not really lovers and they don’t manage to get anywhere or accomplish anything (including committing serious crimes). Amy Seimetz sole directorial feature “Sun Don’t Shine” is in turn basically a more serious take on River of Grass.
I never thought of the film being at all Lovecraftian. Lovecraft embodied the indifference of the universe in the form of gods we can’t understand. This is about a very human form of evil, personified by someone whose inflated sense of self is repeatedly punctured by the film.