Badlands (1973)

Watching the magical vistas of Badlands makes it easy to forget how violent and disturbing the film can be. Unlike the similar setup of Bonnie and Clyde, the depictions of violence in Badlands are more deeply disturbing because they’re never built up or elevated to spectacle. Kit (Martin Sheen) kills as casually as most people say hello. And Holly’s (Sissy Spacek) attraction is far less Freudian. Sure, she initially finds his soft James Dean vibe attractive, but the sex is lousy.

Writer/director Terrence Malick isn’t interested in crafting charismatic or psychologically conflicted characters caught up in a violent rampage. If anything, Kit’s killing spree is as natural as anything else in the film. The story of Kit and Holly on the run is incidental to a deeper contemplation about the characters’ metaphysical ruminations.

In one scene, Holly wonders about her lack of control in her place in the universe. In another film, this revelation would be about how she got caught up in Kit’s killing spree, but in Malick’s version, this is a deeper contemplation about how powerless one is to be born, too chose ones parents, to choose the people one is (and will be) surrounded by. If Badlands is about anything, it’s about Holly’s metaphysical awakening.

Sissy Spacek’s narration is permeated with information incidental and superficial to a traditional progression of plot and characters. She speaks with more regret about killing her pet catfish than being complicit to the numerous deaths of human beings in Kit’s spree. This is not to create some sort of dissonance between Spacek’s regard for the life of her fish and the lives of people Kit kills, but to explore the much more natural moment of being faced with the idea of death and guilt on a more personal and intimate level.

To Malick, the killing is a general stroke of the universe. He shoots violence with casual ambivalence because it reflects the state of the world, the destructive impulse of man. It’s the metaphysical idiosyncrasies, the moment where Kit stands on a dead cow or Holly gazes at a series of photographs, that Malick finds worth lingering one. Life and death are fleeting, permeable moment.

These deeper inner revelations are juxtaposed with the momentary romance between Kit and Holly. The destructive relationship between the characters is highlighted in the aftermath of their love-making. Kit proposes that they smash their hands with rocks in order to remember their first time. This suggests that the love-making itself was not pleasurable enough to be memorable so Kit proposes to re-enforce the relationship with pain.

Where Malick is not as tactful and artistically nuanced in portraying the bad romance between Kit and Holly is in the use of music. “Love is Strange” and “A Blossom Fell” give the film lyrics that are so on the nose that it’s at odds with the naturalistic presentation of the characters. While the use of music by Carl Orff and James Taylor offsets these bad musical choices, it’s a sign that Malick is still struggling to fully understand how to consistently use music and imagery together in a cohesive manner.

As a first feature, Badlands is distinct, rich and nuanced. In Malick’s body of work, it’s clear the film is the most stylistically uneven, but they’re minor hiccups in an otherwise rich and fascinating film that takes a familiar setup in an unexpected and wondrous direction. Badlands is a film so strange and beautiful at times that it’s hard to remember it’s about a killing spree. This is not to say Malick ignores the evil of the characters, but that he doesn’t delight in making their wickedness spectacle. Kit and Holly are fatalistic, flawed and, most of the times, remarkably average.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing