Monday, April 23, 2012

#616. Badlands (1973) - The Films of Terrence Malick

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates

Tag line: "He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. For a while they lived together in a tree house. In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people"

Trivia: Don Johnson auditioned for the part of Kit

Through the unlikely combination of poetry and random violence, Terrence Malick’s Badlands weaves a singular tale of two young lovers who, as one of the film's tag lines states, set out to kill a little time, and end up killing innocent people instead. 

Based on the 1958 Starkweather murders and set against the backdrop of the American Midwest, Badlands introduces us to Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a 25-year-old drifter who bears a striking resemblance to James Dean. One day, Kit meets Holly (Sissy Spacek), a baton-twirling teenager, with whom he falls instantly in love. When Holly’s widowed father (Warren Oates) objects to the relationship, Kit shoots him dead, then sets the house on fire. 

At first horrified by Kit’s actions, Holly nonetheless agrees to go with him, and the two set off on a cross-country killing spree, leaving a string of corpses in their wake. 

At the outset of Badlands, Kit and Holly appear to be kindred spirits. He is a loner who had trouble holding onto a job, while she isn’t very popular in school. “Our time together was limited”, Holly says in her dual role as the film's narrator, “and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from all the cares of the world”. 

Yet what these initial days of their affair also made painfully clear was that Kit and Holly had little in common. They played cards and took walks, but hardly spoke a word to each other while doing so, and even their first sexual encounter was less than fulfilling. It isn’t until Kit guns down Holly’s father that their relationship finally comes alive. Excitement and danger became their constant companions the moment Kit pulled that trigger, and all at once, their life together seemed a lot more promising. 

I can’t say I was immediately impressed the first time I saw Badlands, and the reason why was the narration. To me, it felt out of place, colliding rather abruptly - even clumsily - with the story at hand. At one point, as she and Kit are hiding out in in the woods, Holly fills her days by waxing poetic about the surrounding wilderness. “I grew to love the forest, “ she says, “the cooin’ of the doves and the hum of dragonflies in the air made it always lonesome, like everybody’s dead and gone”. Certainly not the reflections you'd expect to hear from a girl on the run, let alone one in the company of a murderer. 

These asides of Holly's felt too detached to me, yet the more I saw the movie (as well as Malick's equally impressive Days of Heaven, which features similar narration), the more I appreciated this detachment, which, in reality, gives Badlands it’s center; creating a world where violence and beauty exist in perfect unison. Through bloodshed, Kit was leaving his mark on the world, while Holly, by way of her observations, created the utopia in which they both would live, if not physically, then spiritually. 

Kit and Holly spent most of their lives as outsiders, looking for a place to call home. In the end, they found that place in each other.

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