Director / Screenplay: Terrence Malick / Editing: Robert Estrin / DP: Brian Probyn & Tak Fujimoto / Music: George Tipton
Cast: Martin Sheen / Sissy Spacek / Warren Oates / Ramon Bieri / John Carter
Terrence Malick is an artist who, had he been born a century earlier, would’ve likely been dazzled by The Impressionists (actually, make that The Pre-Raphaelites) and made a subsequent career out of painting glimpses of the stories framed in his mind’s eye.
As it is, he wound-up making films. Not mere movies, but Big, Bold FILMS; pictures that spoke of Malick’s bedazzlement by another French art movement: the ‘New Wave’ of post-war cinema embodied in the work of Truffaut, Clouzot, Cocteau and many, many more. A film-maker with a trim catalogue of titles (frustratingly so, to this writer), even I’ll admit that his recent output has struggled to recapture the true magic of his earlier work, of which Badlands – his astonishing debut – is a prime example.
After giving the question a great deal of thought, I can’t think of a stronger debut by another Director since Badlands. Indeed, perhaps only Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) marks the greater accomplishment, which makes Malick’s slow descent into artful pretentiousness all the harder to accept.
Malick opens his account, with a filmy shot of Holly (Spacek) petting her dog as she tells us in VO, how her mother ‘had died of pneumonia when I was just a kid’ and how ‘Father took the wedding cake he’d had in the fridge for ten years and gave it to the yard man’. While Spacek’s reading us lines from Malick’s script, her delivery’s almost mono-tonal – without an emotional tinge – which suggests a few details from the off.
Firstly, as the film’s narrator, she’s either a future witness speaking of what’s about to unfold, or is speaking from beyond the grave a-la Sunset Boulevard. Second, her stilted delivery doesn’t waver whenever her VO punctuates key passages in the film, which suggests not that Malick wrote it that way ‘by accident’, but by design. He wants us to consider Holly’s VO as a ‘testament’ of sorts, that’s been rewritten, yes, and polished: but by Holly herself, as opposed to the mere author of the piece. It’s a subtle interpretation, but one that rings true, for as the film unfolds and we see her true character – one of listless passivity – we really get the pervading sense that we’re listening to a much-revised confession.
Holly and her dad (played with understated grit, by Warren Oates), move to a small town, where they can start over in life and where he can rebuild his business as a sign painter.
Enter Martin Sheen as Kit. The first significant role of Sheen’s career, he was able to project a certain nihilistic swagger into Kit; a performance that transcended the writing. From the moment we first see him, riding shotgun on the back of a refuse truck, with a causal insouciance, Sheen – and Malick – are doing enough to convince us that Kit’s Trouble. He’s flippant. Intrusive. Judgmental and Cocky. And vain. In his 501s, white tee and denim jacket, he’s the spit of James Dean and Malick allows him enough space to primp that elegant quiff, when he thinks Holly isn’t looking. It helps sustain mise-en-scéne, too; the film doing a good job of rooting us in late Fifties, middle-America.
Of course, the die is cast when Kit first claps eyes on Holly, who’s twirling a cheerleader’s baton out there on the lawn. Spacek’s playing her as a fifteen year old girl, with Sheen a decade older, so his attention – and subsequent courtship – is filling a gap in her barren emotional centre. She’s a teenage girl, after all, who’s experienced bereavement and a wrenching move from her old home town, so it’s inevitable that her head’s going to be turned by this glamorous boy: especially if he’s from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. He represents a promise of danger – of excitement – that she’s just not getting from her widow’d father. As their courtship deepens, Kit feels the time is right to tell her father of his intentions… Which is when things begin to unravel.
Frustrated by the inability (or unwillingness) of Holly’s father to see his potential as a suitor for his daughter, Kit forces the issue by breaking into the empty house and packing a bag for Holly. When she and her father return, the inevitable confrontation has Kit shoot him, as he’s about to call the police.
Tellingly, neither Kit nor Holly are moved by this act: a shock to the senses, even now. Holly’s just seen her boyfriend kill her father in cold blood, yet here she is helping to ‘sanitise’ the crime scene… Why? Is it shock? An underlying listlessness or suppressed rage? Maybe. Her father had shot the dog, after all, as punishment for seeing Kit behind his back, but even so… There’s a moral vacuum here, in both Holly and Kit, that stems from thwarted ambition and lack of direction; a set-up seen in any number of movies of this type, from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Natural Born Killers (1994). In each case, the complicit female protagonist always rocks the moral majority more than her (male) partner, given her actions stem from an unaccustomed source. Had cinema’s first century been liberally peppered with pliant molls and female killers, we’d have gotten used to the idea by now.
But it wasn’t. And we haven’t.
Now on the run, they start their new life together, in a bucolic treehouse & camp of Kit’s design. Here they live like Thoreau at Walden Pond; children at play in the fields of the Lord, with Holly reading from Thor Heyerdahl’s account of the Kon-Tiki voyage: the parallels are clear, between the Kon-Tiki raft drifting on the open sea, at the mercy of the elements and these two fugitives, drifting through the prairie states, in search of safe harbour. But it can’t last. With three curious lawmen soon added to his tally of kills, Kit moves them on to the remote home of Cato (Ramon Bieri), a friend he knew from the old job collecting trash. With this gentle giant soon despatched for showing signs of ratting them out, Kit & Holly move on yet again, piling-up bodies in their wake until, eventually, the long arm of the law finally catches-up with our desperadoes.
By that point, Malick has taken us on a journey of the mind. He’s shown us extended takes of ‘B-roll’ material that, at first glance, bears little resemblance to the story. Cloudscapes & wildlife, as non-judgmental observers. Open seas of prairie, dotted with the odd oil-pipeline or pump. Malick’s showing us the sheer, beautiful indifference of the World, to Kit’s short-lived reign of terror. He thinks that he’s denting the fabric of the universe, when the truth is, he’s making no impression at all, except in the lives he’s taking and those left behind.
Not that their story is done, for Malick offers a final, acerbic comment on how society now prizes the cult of celebrity over substance and makes folk heroes out of the unworthy (don’t look for Robin Hood-style largesse in this sorry tale). Here’s Kit, waiting in-chains, at a local airport, for an aircraft to return both he and Holly back to their home state. During this brief interlude, he plays to the gallery of a hangar full of soldiers, keen to get a whiff of the killer’s aura. At some point, Kit distributes effects from his pockets, like a rock musician lobbing out plectrums at the end of a gig. Relics. Mementoes of something important today, that’ll be forgotten tomorrow.
It’s also banal: for in the closing moments before their plane takes-off, here’s a postman, carrying sacks of mail, oblivious to who’s in the vicinity and what’s just transpired. Life – and the World – goes on.
In the final analysis, Kit is a violent, transient presence in this world. He feels something ‘other’, but lacks both awareness and insight to know what that might be. So, he ends up just ‘passing through’. His acts of killing, are mere catalysts for change in those they leave behind, as much as they’re crimes against humanity: not that that appears to bother either he nor Holly. Both characters are devoid of remorse for the most part. Only at the end, does Kit suggest that he sits down with Holly and ‘talk about your father’…
Of the other victims, there’s no sign of contrition which makes Malick’s screenplay all the more remarkable. Through it all, Malick delivers a picture that has us rooting for the mass-murderer. His victims are mere impediments to forward momentum. We want him to suffer just punishment, as much as we want to see him and Holly ‘go North’ and get away with it: a testament to Malick’s writing as much to the potency of a real-life case on which it’s all based.
Charles Starkweather killed eleven souls in 1958, during a two-week spree of random violence, with his girlfriend in-tow. Caril Ann Fugate survived the episode and, after more than a decade in prison as a co-conspirator to Starkweather’s crimes, she made her account. Society rightfully took its time in judging her worthy of release; watch Badlands and you’ll be wondering on which side the angels might fall for Holly.
Still, a damn fine picture of two damned fiends…
We had our bad moments like any other couple. Kit accused me of just being along for the ride, while at times, I wished he’d fall in the river and drown. So I could watch.