#3 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
I’ve often found it difficult to write about Terrence Malick films. I started my review of The Thin Red Line three times before I came across a way to break it down. Malick’s films are almost experimental from beginning to end, relying on sight and sound in montage, almost like in silent cinema, in order to convey an emotional and, often times, religious state. They’re hard to break down intellectually. They don’t conform to traditional forms of cinematic language, being pieced together from small bits of visual and auditory information that feel disconnected from each other from a purely technical perspective but weave together on an emotional level. With that in mind, I’ve resisted a review of his work for a while even though he’s probably my favorite living director.
So, Badlands is Malick’s first movie. The background of the film’s production is filled with horror stories of independent filmmaking. He had to scrounge for money, often in the middle of filming. A cast member got hurt, and Malick couldn’t afford a helicopter ride to the nearest hospital a few hours away, so he sent the man away in a car (which turned the crew against him). The controlled fire of the house near the beginning of the film went out of control. Production took an extended break for a time. And yet, the movie feels remarkably cohesive.
Holly is a fifteen year old girl living with her widowed father in a small town in South Dakota. Detached from everything around her with no real firm interests, she meets Kit, a twenty-five year old James Dean wannabe who gets fired from his trash hauling job because he just decides at one moment that he’s done for the day. He seems exciting, especially the way he is so nonchalant about everything including picking up little trinkets here and there, assigning importance to them (like a large rock after he and Holly have sex for the first time) and then instantly discarding them because they’re inconvenient. Holly’s father is about rules and protecting her while Kit just wants whatever comes his way with little care in the world. Holly’s father doesn’t like this and tries to keep them separate, but Kit’s a nihilist and guns down Holly’s father with little compunction. After a brief fight between the two young lovers, they run off together into the wilds of South Dakota.
Having seen almost all of Malick’s work already (save for A Hidden Life), I’m walking into the beginning with full knowledge of the thematic obsessions that suffuse his work, and one of those is the idea of Eden on Earth. It’s here, where Kit and Holly build their own little fort in the woods that Malick introduces it for the first time in his filmography. The idea is that there can be no paradise on Earth, that utopia is an unrealistic ideal that always comes crashing down. It’s not really because of outside forces, it’s because we always bring in our sins with us and can never escape that , so the utopias are short lived at best and mirages at worst. In Badlands, Kit is a killer going in, so that very fact is the seed of the little utopia’s destruction.
Kit and Holly fight, bicker, and come back together frequently, but the law is on the lookout for them, eventually finding the hideout and ending their paradise. Kit kills those who found them, and he takes Holly away, this time in search of the Montana border. Their journey takes them to a remote and isolated house where one of Kit’s former workmates on the garbage truck currently lives. Kit ends up killing him as well as two people who come by to visit, and Holly barely seems to notice. She’s become desensitized and disconnected from Kit’s violence, but as they get closer to Montana, she begins to disconnect from Kit as well.
Kit doesn’t represent anything other than pure nihilism. He believes in nothing, offering little beyond platitudes as deep wisdom into the Dictaphone of a rich man in whose house they hole up for a while. All the time, though, the law is getting closer, and when they reach an isolated oil rig in the middle of nowhere, the law finally catches up. It’s here that Holly finally decides that she’s had enough of the violence and aimless wandering, and she tells Kit to go on alone.
Now, Kit, for all his nihilistic tendencies, is a remarkably charming personality as played rather perfectly by Martin Sheen. His swagger and ease is undeniable, so when he simply gives up his chase from the law, despite having won it, it ends up making perfect sense. He wasn’t killing people for any real reason, he was just doing it. A search for fame was as good a reason as any other reason, and having achieved that, he’s happy to simply give up. Arrested, chained, and still making all the police officers around him laugh as he hands out trinkets from his pockets as souvenirs, Kit has everything he wants in that moment.
Holly, though, watches, also arrested, from afar as detached as she had been before. She observes without feeling much. As played by the very young Sissy Spacek, Holly is an innocent, wide eyed and representative of a detached youth, unmoored from anything of meaning. Her father, who paints advertising signs on the road, offers her nothing but distractions like music lessons to keep her out of trouble. At the heart of the problem seems to be a lack of connection to anything of real meaning, and knowing of Malick’s own Roman Catholicism, that is most likely a lack of tradition and religion in Malick’s mind, but that goes beyond the actual text of the film and into extra stuff, so I’ll leave it at that.
Badlands is one of the great debut films. It looks gorgeous, feels like a poem, is anchored by wonderful performances from Sheen and Spacek, and it speaks to a universal feeling in the modern world, even fifty years after it was made and seventy years after it was set. Modeled on the real life killings of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands takes an awful event in American history and makes it a beautiful experience.