Assistant Second Unit Director
Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
Location: Juneau, Alaska
139 - Badlands
A Warner Brothers film. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Rated PG, for violence and brief innuendo. Running time: 95 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: October 15, 1973.
Consider, first of all, Terrence Malick’s use of bright, colorful landscapes in Badlands. For a film about mass murder, its photography is brimming with beautiful shots of rolling hills and pink, fluffy clouds that look like they were painted on a soundstage. Yet look carefully at these shots, and you will see an underlining degree of mud or dirt that degrades the color and the sunshine. There are no rolling hills that don’t kick up dust, no lake that isn’t also a mud-hole, and no ray of sun that doesn’t also reveal the dirt and sweat that covers the film’s protagonists. The degree of drudge is finally overwhelming as we watch—though the film is beautiful to look at, it ultimately comes across as polluted and, as Sissy Spacek’s character puts it, “Kind of blah, like a bathtub after the water has all gone down the drain.” The elements of “blah” and filth are crucial to understanding Badlands.
Badlands is based, more or less, on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, teenage lovers who went on a killing spree in the late 1950s that led to a nationwide manhunt. Starkweather was eventually sent to the electric chair, and Fugate, after serving several years, is now on parole and is living quite normally. Fugate allegedly never pulled any trigger and was simply along for the ride, too young at 13 to really comprehend what was going on. Malick remains true to this interpretation of the case, though he makes his Caril (Sissy Spacek), named here Holly, 15 years old, and Charles, here Kit, (Martin Sheen) 25 years old and bearing a remarkable resemblance to James Dean. Marlon Brando’s The Wild One is also a clear influence, who famously answered the question, “What are you rebelling against today?” with, “Whaddya got?” In the film, Holly is probably slightly retarded and Kit is clearly psychopathic, but Malick does not use these mental states as explanations or excuses. He rightfully wonders what would cause two kids to respond so violently to their environment, and Badlands plays like his speculation. We’ll never really know for sure, and neither does the film, but here is at least their story, stripped of the filter of newspaper headlines and broadcast news specials through which the world experienced it.
This was Terrence Malick’s first feature film, and it is one of the great American movies. In his directorial career, Malick has made only four films (1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line are also slow, thoughtful meditations on the dark nature of humanity; 2005's The New World is more subtly damning of the human race, but it does tip the balance of colonialism into the realm of dark fairy tale), and they all remain some of the most poignant in American cinema. He is a director who refuses to get himself in a hurry and who wisely gives his actors room to explore his offbeat, often bizarre antiheroes. Anomalously, the more that his films tap deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the human heart, the more difficultly we have understanding his characters, and the enigma of this paradox is where Malick achieves greatness. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek tap into those mysteries here, in a film that is almost messianic in the way that it urges us to condemn violence without demonizing its participants.
What’s curious about Badlands is that Malick devotes only a few fleeting moments of screen time to the manhunt itself. Holly, who narrates, says that she and Kit are reading the newspapers as they travel state to state, and they know that police are looking for them. Yet we never see policemen or national guards, except in a very brief montage, and we remain exclusively with the two teenagers as they split from North Carolina and travel west, towards the mountains of Montana, a tail of brutal violence following them. This is not a film about a national manhunt or about fugitives; it is about Holly and Kit’s playhouse, created seemingly out of Kit’s boredom with life and Holly’s detachment from reality. “When this is over,” Kit says, “I’m going to buy you a big, juicy stake.” Holly replies by wondering what her future husband—not Kit—will one day be like, and if he is thinking of her right now. These are not the thoughts of killers, are they? All the while, creepy, carnival-like music plays, eclipsing their interaction with a sort of dream-like atmosphere that only heightens the madness of the entire exercise. These are children, and they are playing games.
Even the brief, bursts of graphic violence are followed not with action or chase sequences that compliment the built-up adrenaline, but leisurely, quiet moments that bring the momentum and panic to a grinding halt. When bounty hunters infiltrate Kit and Holly’s forest hideout and are subsequently shot to death in a disturbing blast of sudden violence, Malick immediately slows the picture down and allows for a lingering extreme shot of Holly in the distance, slightly obscured by nearby, purple flowers. In the film’s best scene, Kit has shot an old friend named Cato (Ramon Bieri), who now lies on his bed, slowly dying. Holly approaches him, and they strike up a conversation about Cato’s pet spider (“Does he bite?” “Ain’t never bitten me.”). The effect in both sequences is almost maddening: People have died gruesomely, and our senses have been jolted, and instead of feeling the immediate consequences of this brutality, Malick forces us to slow our pulses down and experience Holly and Kit’s bored detachment. “I never asked him to start shooting anybody,” Holly calmly states immediately following one slaughter, with the passivity that someone else might say, “I never asked him to wear a tie.” It’s unnerving.
The whole film is detached from its violence, to the point that we are tempted to seriously question Malick’s almost passive take on the killing spree. The approach disturbed noted critic Pauline Kael, who was not impressed and wrote of the final, most alarming sequences in which Kit and Holly are brought in, “The troopers who arrest [Kit] ask him why he committed the murders, and he says that he always wanted to be a criminal; they smile approvingly. No one shows any anger towards him; the townspeople are quietly eager for the souvenirs of himself he distributes. All this slanting is deigned to prove that Kit and Holly are psychologically aberrant and yet they’re just like everyone else—that their moral vacuum is spreading over the flat, dead landscape. The badlands culture isn’t hostile—it’s just banal. The movie can be summed up: mass-culture banality is killing our souls and making everybody affectless. Invasion of the Body Snatchers said the same thing without all this draggy art; it managed to be moderately entertaining and very scary.”
I will grant the late, great Kael her interpretation, but perhaps not her conclusion that the film is “draggy art.” When we realize that two teenagers really did do what this film showcases, examinations and interpretations must be made, and Malick has done as good as a job as anyone could have—even better, considering his bold move to see violence the way that the killers do. Invasion of the Body Snatchers works as a metaphor for the type of mentality that created Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate; Badlands has now taken it a level higher and dares to explore the very nature of these assimilated minds. Malick’s conclusion seems to be that actions of the two star-crossed lovers is a prophecy for the desensitization towards violence that has gripped our country, and the respect and friendship that the police demonstrate towards Kit indicates that this desensitization has no boundaries. The police here do not swear allegiance to the law because they respect justice and goodness; they follow the law because society has taught them that the good guys always win in a shootout with the buy guys. They’d just as soon let Kit and Holly go to hunt them for another day, except that wouldn’t be winning.
The trick to understanding Malick’s message, I think, is to recognize that the aforementioned contrast between nature’s beauty and nature’s filth is at the heart of the film, and that the cinematography is the director’s way of stating the depravity of the violence committed by the two protagonists, who otherwise see their killing streak as some sort of game without any serious repercussions. The two progress like normal teenagers experiencing puppy-love, complete with infatuation, raging hormones, “true love,” and, eventually, boredom; the chief difference, of course, is that it is a puppy love soaked in blood. They see an almost surreal beauty in what they do; we see their point of view as well, but the mud and filth of their actions is ever prevalent in our minds, just as it bleeds through every pretty picture on the screen. The effect is ultimately disgust, but we certainly see what Kit and Holly find so attractive in this lifestyle: A chance to escape to the rolling hills, even though they never seem to realize that the closer they get to the beautiful mountains, the filthier they get as well.