Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Badlands (1973)

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Badlands"



[repost for the TIFF Lightbox Malick retrospective]

Badlands will probably go down as the only Terrence Malick film to feature a car chase. It is a curious work in his repertoire. When it premiered in 1973, Malick’s signature style of freeform editing was still years away, the melodramatic earnestness, unconsidered. It would not be until Days of Heaven that Malick confidently broke free of the literary conventions of movie-making, all but excising the entirety of the dialogue of his screenplay, thus privileging the visual to emote what was left unsaid. While I agree with those that consider Badlands a minor work for this director, it undoubtedly remains a significant work for cinema history. More absurdist theatre than fine opera, what Badlands does provide (and something I all but erased from my memory until this last revisit) is a rare glimpse into the filmmaker’s wicked sense of humor.

Based loosely on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of the 1950’s, Badlands is about two wayward youths, the James Dean lookalike, Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and the 15-year old Dakotan tagalong, Holly (Sissy Spacek), as they pinball across the American frontier one murder to the next, with little purpose or destination. As with all of his films, the Edenic myth of a foregone paradise now overrun by the pestilence of man is hardly concealed on the surface of Badlands. The film lingers in the familiar twilight hour glow on small town America before the first crime is committed. When the title appears we see Holly in the front yard of her home like a Norman Rockwell vision abruptly intruded upon by Kit as he slinks into frame towards her like a lumbering agent of doom. He is charming and good-looking, a romantic ideal to which the film takes a certain gleeful pride in undoing as the story progresses.

Badlands"

Throughout, Holly narrates with a child-like, unrehearsed delivery similar to that employed in Days of Heaven. The line between reality and fantasy slowly blurs, and while we watch events unfold, as homicidal and disturbing as they may be (“[Kit] was the most trigger happy man I’d ever met.”), the perpetual naïveté of Holly’s thought process disarms our sense of propriety. One can’t help but smile, laugh even, the world is a stage and Kit and Holly are performers. The musical cues further this fractured reality, from the jangly score to the offbeat classical numbers (something Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers adopts in its homage, i.e. Cowboy Junkies vs. Nat King Cole). As outcasts of the Garden of Eden, Kit and Holly take to the woods and live a Huck Finn kind of adventure, creating a fort, reading stories aloud, adopting flashy aliases like James and Priscilla. Holly imagines what the world must think of their behavior; in sepia-toned stills we see how out of proportion that solipsism has got in projection of their own celebrity.

In an inspired moment of the film, as Kit and Holly hold up in a wealthy man’s house, Kit takes a fancy to his Dictaphone; feeling obliged to record something, he muses:

Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat ’em like enemies. There’s always an outside chance you can learn something. Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoints of others. Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority of opinion once it’s accepted. Of course, Holly and I have had fun, even if it has been rushed, and uh, so far, we’re doing fine, hadn’t got caught. Excuse the grammar.

His sincerity plays funny. The absurdity of their behavior plays funny. Occasionally Holly gets pensive and bemoans the fact the world seems like a faraway place. By the end she arbitrarily leaves the fantasy as easily as she got on, while Kit continues unflinching, no lessons to be learned, no morals to be imparted. The world of Badlands is brutally amoral, picking up where Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde left off six years prior. Every action in the film after the first murder is committed feels indiscriminate, they plan to drive to Mexico but end up in Saskatchewan, Kit kills certain people but not others, and when it is time for him to go down in a hail of bullets like Gangster pictures romanticize, he plays with rocks on the side of the road like a child.

Perhaps it is a consequence of playing in the same chaotic universe, but Badlands most reminds me of those films of Werner Herzog that are steeped in absurdity, such as Stroszek or Aguirre: The Wrath of God (which premiered a year before Badlands). Kit’s graceless end, while not as stupendously ridiculously as Stroszek’s (and let’s face it, whose is?), does embrace, with the same abandon, life sputtering out. The closing bit of voice-over, and the last words of Kit are like looking into the eyes of Herzog’s grizzlies: there is nothing there and when the novelty of the narration wears off the weight of that realization becomes quickly unnerving.

That is Badlands‘ greatness, stopping you cold in your tracks before lifting you into that Malickian sky, a sky that will be repeated again and again with greater pomp and circumstance, but at least in this first go around the Garden of Eden, it has very modest and terrestrial beginnings. I suspect his upcoming project, Tree of Life, with its interest in the cosmos, is going to take this metaphor about as far as one can go; before it is to become so abstract, there was just Kit, a force of nature in his own right perhaps, but one born of no greater purpose than sheer boredom.

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Musical Instruments
Guest

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are mesmerizing as serial killers on the lam.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

Oh, that Carl Orff music in Badlands is sublime, and Ms. Spacek is lovingly groomed and freckled (even when on the run). This movie just whizzes by, and then ends. I totally get the ‘re-consideration’ of Bonnie & Clyde angle here, Malick’s Badlands reads like a criticism of that film at times.

Marc Saint-Cyr
Editor

Excellent piece, Mike. You’re absolutely right about it being funny – it has such a great, quirky sense of humor. And Kit and Holly are just fascinating to watch – so detached, so odd.

And that’s what I got from Badlands as a whole too. With it being my first Malick, I was somewhat expecting it to be a little more rough around the edges than his later transcendent films. But I was REALLY surprised at how grounded its focus was – how it shows the main pair, the worn-out America, the strange, doomed quest. The film it initially reminded me of the most was Easy Rider.

Marc Saint-Cyr
Editor

Oh yeah, I’d totally believe it just based on the scant, outsider’s impressions I have of the other films. It was surprising enough when it came up in Badlands, and I know better than to ask for seconds.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

I love that the voice-over in BADLANDS acts as a part of Spacek’s character that you don’t really see on screen until the end of the film. How she goes from romanticizing her ‘on the run affair’ with Kitt to the slow realization that Kitt has no bloody clue how to live day to day or any plan to speak of.

Phil
Guest

I do not remember if anyone brought this up in an early post or not, but there was a pretty great oral history of BADLANDS published in GQ.

http://www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201105/badlands-oral-history?printable=true

rot
Guest

I love the mythologizing of Malick in that oral history, thanks Phil!

Marc Saint-Cyr
Editor

Yeah, I stumbled upon that piece a few days ago – fascinating stuff. Those tantalizing little snippets of Malick from his final interview in the ’70s really helps along that mythologizing process!

rot
Guest

I realize he is a high-profile director and that is probably why actors are fawning over him, but of all the directors out there, he is the least kind to the acting process… not just because, as Sheen says he has a difficult time communicating to actors what they should do, but because irrespective of what they do, he edits in such a way as to make something wholly new. The actor is raw material. That said, Clooney was PHENOMENAL in The Thin Red Line.

rot
Guest

Though Brad Pitt is given a few scenes in Tree of Life to shine… that is a rare occurrence.

Marc Saint-Cyr
Editor

Yeah, Kurt and I talked a bit about that before the Badlands screening. He has a way with actors that isn’t really found in other directors’ work. That he can find prominent spots in his films for the likes of Richard Gere and Ben Affleck along with Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel kind-of says something – no matter the calibre or individual nature of the actor, if he wants to use them, he sure will make use of them as he sees fit.