FILM MARATHON: Terrence Malick #1 – Badlands [1973]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: October 15th, 1973 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Terrence Malick
Writer(s): Terrence Malick

“He said that if the Devil came at me, I could shoot him with a gun”

A character at the end of Terrence Malick’s debut feature film Badlands tells antihero Kit that he is “quite the individual”. This could be the understatement of 1973. Based on the 1950s Starkweather-Fugate killing spree, the film tells the tale of a 25-year old James Dean type and his 15-year old girlfriend on the run. Shy, young, and naïve, Holly falls in love with this man who somehow also picked her despite the potential of having any other girl given half the chance. What starts as a casual affair behind her over-protective, sign-painting father soon spirals out of control along with his wavering moral center. Seeming a bit off right from his introduction offering a garbage man coworker a dollar to eat a dead collie on the side of the road, Kit’s true ambivalence to the sanctity of life—besides his or his girl’s—rises to the surface when desire is suppressed to leave him with no option besides doing what’s necessary to survive. Intelligent or lucky, he is able to lead an entire country’s police force around on a wild goose chase. He never wants to commit murder, but he won’t feel too remorseful when forced.

Badlands has become something of a classic ushering in the career of reclusive perfectionist Malick. I can see the appeal from its gorgeous visuals, methodical action, and compositional skill, but beyond the perfection of Martin Sheen’s role as Kit lies little more to truly set it apart. You take away his rendition of today’s Tabloid-cover celebrity malice and all that’s left is a plodding film of a confused girl traveling the Dakota badlands who’s indifferent to her companion’s crimes. As a commentary on society’s need to glorify murderers—glamorizing their cool, calm demeanors in the face of life or death situations—you do catch a glimpse at the beginnings of the atrocity our world has become today. The quickest way to become famous is to kill a bunch of people and do so without capture for an extended period of time. No one wants to listen to a feel-good tale of down-on-their-luck Samaritans when a salaciously written tome featuring gunplay and spilled blood waits on the next page. And when your star attraction has the mentality of wanting to have a girl on his arm at the end to scream his name to the heavens as his last breath exits—well, even better.

I appreciate the minimalism. On paper this film should be a contender for my favorites ever—I guess it just didn’t fully click. Maybe I find it hard to believe a girl can watch as the man she loves kills her father and for all intents and purposes kidnaps her to go on the run with head on a swivel. To the credit of all involved, though, the performances almost make me believe it could happen. And being based on a true story, it did. You do wonder if anyone is coming after them once they leave Texas or whether the paranoia is all in Kit’s warped mind while Sissy Spacek’s Holly simply regurgitates his fears in her narration. Their actions portray the ticks and maneuvers of a junkie, always on edge and never having the time to ask questions. But that feeling doesn’t last long as we are shown montages of men arming themselves in a sequence recalling newsreel footage, readying for the misfortune of crossing the path of these misguided souls. Trigger-happy and nervous are never a good combination; mix those with a winning personality able to naturally turn any adversary into fan is as lethal as it gets.

And this is where the film does works. Sheen is so charismatic and innocent treating all the tragedy left in his wake as though a game where his foes will rise and dust themselves off at the end. You want to somehow believe he’s doing everything for the right reason: for love. Never had he met a girl for whom he could love and cherish as a human being rather than a vehicle for sex or pleasure. He wasn’t going to lose her without a fight. And although her father (Warren Oates) was not only correct in disapproving of their relationship, but also completely right in attempting to call the police when Kit trespasses in his home, you can’t quite shake the feeling that the young man pulling the trigger was justified. Holly wasn’t screaming to be removed from his clutches—she too almost seems like her father will pull through as he lays motionless on the floor dead. Kit can justify his actions any way he wants, but she is more delusional them he for letting it continue on from there. She knows what he is doing is wrong, knows she can never run with such a man again, but the love is too strong to walk away. Kit is the most handsome man she’s ever seen and he’s all hers. The price being paid is for them to be together. Can you really put a value to such a thing?

Unfortunately yes, you can. And murder isn’t part of the bill. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy their escapades or the friendly hostage taking and theft that leaves a rich man locked in his mansion’s closest with a list of everything stolen. Kit is a conscientious miscreant teetering off the scale of sanity. Sometimes his good nature works and others the desire to shoot his gun wins out. But that anticipation of a gun barrel pointed in the direction of a friend or loved one—treating their eventual wounds as though a shot in the gut healable without a doctor’s care—is nothing compared to the unnerving smile of pure joy on Spacek’s face when meeting a new victim. Perhaps she honestly doesn’t realize everyone coming into contact with them is most surely dead once they leave, but either way her good ol’ southern hospitality never wavers. Even when faced by the decision to leave the man she loves in order to stop running, her tear-streaked and bittersweet goodbye ends with Kit telling her a time and place to meet a decade down the line to begin their love once more if still alive.

No matter how much I enjoyed these two kids for their flaws and innocence in the midst of an increasing body count, it’s just not enough to forget how little actually happens during the course of the film. Martin Sheen’s Kit is hands-down one of the most effectively written antiheroes in cinematic history with an ability to make friends that’s both unbelievable and yet completely authentic. His is the kind of character you don’t see often, or simply a parody if so. Kit is a born survivor built with a strong mindset crucial to living in the badlands of Middle America. This stark wasteland mirrors the emptiness of Kit’s soul as he wanders in search of affection. It’s a world shown precisely and deliberately by Malick, a man capable of shooting a riveting car chase through dirt clouds, the beauty of a flame-ridden house burning to the ground, and a sequence utilizing a stand-up mirror to bring tension to a boil as Kit confronts Holly’s father for the last time. This specific shot is so expertly composed I remember it more clearly than any other part of the movie. So while the whole may have left me cold, the parts are too good to be disregarded. Malick, without a doubt, introduced himself to the world with a bold brushstroke.

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