“Badlands” - Terrence Malick (1973)

Of the extraordinarily rich, though sparse, filmography of writer-director Terrence Malick, no work was greater than his first feature, Badlands. Although his subsequent films have won deserved praise and international awards, none has ever been able to match the majesty and poetry of Badlands, whose first public appearance at the 1973 New York Film Festival stunned and dazzled the critical community. What it is that makes the film so great is difficult to articulate, but perhaps that very elusiveness is an indicator – Badlands’s lyrical fatalism seems to lie outside the scope of the written word.

Indeed, Malick seemed ideally suited to explore this philosophical space – he being the Harvard philosophy graduate who received a Rhodes Scholarship to study Martin Heidegger’s philosophy at Oxford University.  Malick had abandoned those academic pursuits in order to engage in a more immediate form of philosophical expression: the cinema.  And Badlands was the first and greatest expression of what Malick had to give us.

The story of Badlands concerns a young couple in love and on the run from the law.  As such, it has drawn comparison with other films of this ilk, such as They Live by Night (1949), Gun Crazy (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Thieves Like Us (1974).  In fact the events in Badlands seems to have been inspired, though it wasn’t advertised at the time, by a real sequence of events – the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in the late 1950s.  But there’s something about Badlands that makes it stand apart from those other films and events.  To me, Badlands evokes something deeper and more cosmic than such stories, and so it needs to be considered on its own terms.

Among the unique elements of Badlands is its narration. The tale is told in voiceover from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, Holly, who follows her boyfriend, Kit, into an increasingly chaotic world of lawlessness. The story she tells is about Kit, the agent of action in the tale, and so he is the focus all the way along. I suppose this makes it Kit’s story, but in a certain sense Holly’s perspective makes it ultimately her story.  And, of course, the viewer inevitably fashions his or her own story from Holly’s perspective.

The film’s plot moves through five segments, each of which represents a further step towards a fatal destiny.
1.  Kit and Holly
The opening sequence shows two garbage pickup men making the rounds in the middle-class neighborhood of a town in South Dakota.  One of the men, Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), spies a young high school girl, Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), playing in her yard, and he tries to make her acquaintance.  Though Kit is from the “wrong side of the tracks”, Holly is cautiously attracted to the roguish charmer, and they soon become romantically entwined.  Kit, never at a loss for words, seems to like to hear himself talk as much as others do, and he tells  Holly,
“I’ve got stuff to say.  I guess I’m kind of lucky that way.”
Even though Kit is ten years older than Holly and from the wrong class, Holly is soon madly in love.  In voiceover she modestly wonders why such a handsome catch like Kit would even want her: “I’d never been popular in school and didn’t have a lot of personality.” Holly’s low-speed personality is further manifested after their initial lovemaking event by a river bank:
Holly: “Did it go the way it’s supposed to?” 
Kit: “Yeah.”

Holly: “Is that all there is to it?”
Kit: "Yeah."

Holly: "Gosh, what was everyone talking about?"

Kit: "Don't ask me."
A relationship based on sex this was not.  Though Holly tries to keep their affair a secret, her father (Warren Oates) soon finds out and angrily forbids her from seeing Kit. To punish her, he takes her beloved dog out into a field and cruelly shoots him with his pistol. Kit decides to run away with Holly and comes to her home with his gun to take her away. When Holly’s father says he will inform the police, Kit kills him.  He carries the father’s body down to the basement, and when he comes back up, he seems almost in a daze and informs Holly matter-of-factly that he found a toaster down there. 

Kit’s soft-spoken recklessness is now clearly manifest, but Holly decides to stick with him come what may.  Kit sets fire to Holly’s home in an attempt to make it look like a double suicide, and they head out of town together in Kit’s old car.

2.  In the wild
Trying to hide out from the law, Kit and Holly build a tree-house in the forest and make their life there.  For Holly it is all an adventure, like a camping trip. Although she is Kit’s woman, she sees a limitless future before her and wonders what the man she will eventually marry (implying that it will be someone other than Kit) is doing right at that moment. It as if she is only along for the ride, but for Kit, who always effects his super-cool demeanor, things are more desperate.

Eventually three bounty discover the couple and try to capture them in their forest lair, but Kit is ready and kills them all with his gun. 

3.  Visiting Cato and the rich man
Kit now drives out to the rural abode of his trash-man coworker, Cato, hoping to hide out there for awhile.  Cato welcomes them, but when he makes a suspicious move, the now out-of-control Kit kills him.  Then when some friends of Cato show up, Kit locks them in a cyclone cellar and shoots them, as well.

They next stop at the house of a solitary rich man in town to steal some provisions.  The fearful and taciturn rich man acquiesces in every way, but by this point the viewer half expects Kit to kill him, too.  Reflecting on Kit’s trigger-happy ways, Holly only banally comments on her beloved that “it all goes to show how you can know a person and not know him at the same time.”

4.  In the Montana Badlands
The couple now head out for the long drive to the Montana Badlands, hoping eventually to make it across the border into Canada and assume new identities. But Holly’s voiceover account now reveals that she is getting tired of Kit and losing interest.  When a police helicopter approaches and they have to make another desperate getaway, Holly refuses to get into Kit’s car and go with him.

5.  Kit captured
Kit is eventually cornered, and he surrenders to the police.  By this point the killing spree had made Kit and Holly national celebrities, and the police are excited to take him into custody.  Kit, relishing his newfound notoriety, jovially chats with his police captors.  For the first time some people are willing to take him seriously and listen to him.

At the close of the film, Holly reports that Kit was executed in the electric chair six months later.  She herself was let off on probation, and later she married the son of her defense lawyer.
On the surface one wouldn’t think that these dire events surrounding a reckless murderer would be the material for a compelling narrative.  Indeed there are some contrasting views on this matter, which I feel miss the main themes:
  • Some critics see the film as merely a tale of American insensitivity towards the sanctity of life. From this perspective Kit’s casual murders are a reflection of the American tendency to use guns to solve problems. But we should recognize that the willingness to participate in the obliteration of those who threaten our well-being is not something confined to American society.  The mass killings over the past century, which included widespread participation of whole social communities, testify to that [1].
  • Others see the film as a coming-of-age story for the teenager, Holly – she starts out innocently in love with her heroic boyfriend and gradually sees the sinister consequences of his recklessness and turns away from him.
  • Or it can be seen as the impropriety of allowing two immature youths, one an attention-seeking narcissist and the other a teenage girl snowed by her charismatic boyfriend, to have access to guns.
All of these views, though, are just considerations from a social perspective.  To me, the film’s grim but lyrical view of alienation and loneliness goes well beyond the above, more mundane, considerations.  What I am referring to here is not social alienation, but existential alienation – that deep sense of mystery that hovers ominously over all existence.  In this respect it is interesting to compare Badlands with Taxi Driver (1976) in terms of their depiction of existential isolation [2]. By means of its expressionistic depiction of a horrifying reality, Taxi Driver is more immediately immersive and harrowing.  But Badlands is more melancholic, more haunting.

Though unworldly and innocent, Holly senses the fatalism underlying her trip into the enchanted forest with Kit.  She seems intuitively aware that annihilation is everyone’s ultimate destiny. Our general tendency to to forget that grim finality of things is represented here by bizarre moments of distraction, such as when Kit said he found a toaster in the basement. Thus Kit’s alienated, almost schizophrenic, character is iconic for our shifts back and forth between authentic being-towards-death and inauthentic distraction with the otherness of things. Along the way our empathy for Kit radically shifts back and forth in the same fashion.

What is perhaps disturbing to us is that we can somehow relate to Kit – at least some of the time. We know him. In general, it seems that noone really listens to Kit, so most of the time he is talking to himself, almost in an echo chamber.  He loves Holly because she listens to him, but sometimes he wonders if she is really listening. And even that has its limits – towards the end of the film, she confesses that she wasn’t paying attention to him when he was talking to her.

Anyway, for the most part, KIt is not out of control – that only happens in the moments when he feels trapped.  For example, after he has killed Holly’s father, he regains his calm and self control.  Holly slaps him in the face for his seeming indifference. Kit suppresses any response and is back to operating in a measured fashion.

Malick accomplishes the film's overall projection of alienation and the disturbing feeling of powerlessness in the face of desperate circumstances by several means.  One, of course, is Holly’s dispassionate narration of their story.  The film's focalization is from her perspective, but there are some events that she did not witness, such as Kit's capture.  We can still assume that those events are presented as she would have imagined them. Other effective elements of mise-en-scene include the ethereal musical score that provides an emotional counterpoint to the desperate action.  This music is drawn mostly from the work of composers Carl Orff and Erik Satie, and it carries with it a sense of claustrophobic insularity and internal isolation. Orff’s "Gassenhauer", from his “Musica Poetica” (Schulwerk, Vol. 1) plays like an interior theme in one’s own mind, as if only we and noone else can hear it.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is when Kit sets fire to Holly’s home.  For about a minute of screen time, the viewer watches house go up in flames, while Carl Orff’s choral “Passion”, also from his “Musica Poetica”, plays on the soundtrack like a requiem mass.  We see all the details of Holly’s past life being consumed and annihilated, as if a part of her is dying.  There is an unutterable sadness to this scene that suggests the passing away of everything and all.

In the same vein, the murder victims in the film all pass away without a struggle. In fact there is a bizarrely peaceful and helpless calm around Holy’s father and Cato when they are killed, as if they have submitted themselves to the inevitability of oblivion. The final images of the film show a view of the clouds from the plane carrying Kit and Holly to their respective fates, while the unearthly xylophone music of Orff’s "Gassenhauer" slowly comes to its end.  That image and those tones stay with me.

  1. Historian Timothy Snyder points out that the mass killings of Jews and other outsiders in eastern Europe following World War II were not so much driven by ideology but by selfish dehumanization of those outside one’s community.  See Snyder, Timothy, “Hitler’s Logical Holocaust”, The New York Review of Books, 20 December 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/dec/20/hitlers-logical-holocaust/.
  2. See my review: “Taxi Driver”, The Film Sufi, (2012), http://www.filmsufi.com/2012/11/taxi-driver-martin-scorsese-1976.html.

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