[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.
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.