Terrence Malick’s Disturbing and Darkly Funny ‘Badlands’

Terrence Malick
19 March 2013

Terrence Malick’s Badlands arrives on Criterion DVD in the midst of an uncharacteristic burst of productivity from the reclusive director. Five years separated this film, his debut, and Days of Heaven in 1978; from there, it was a 20 year gap until The Thin Red Line, followed by comparatively smaller six-to-seven-year waits between his next few films. Until now, when To the Wonder arrives less than two years after The Tree of Life, with two (!) more Malick pictures supposedly in the can and awaiting his months-to-years-long editing process.

The time Malick logs in the proverbial cutting room (even when producing movies at a career-record pace) has led to some grumbling about his transformation from the promising filmmaker of Badlands to an overly fussy quasi-poet who can’t stop counting and cooing over blades of grass. But while Badlands remains his most traditional narrative, it’s very much of a piece with the films he made five, 20 and nearly 40 years later.

The story itself is so straightforward that it’s basically a genre: young lovers go on a crime spree. It’s also a true-crime tale, at least in the broad outlines; Malick was inspired by the case of Charles Starkweather, a man in his early 20s who went a killing spree with his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. In the Badlands version, Kit (Martin Sheen) works as a garbage man in a small Texas town, and meets Holly (Sissy Spacek), a quiet, wispy teenager. Her father (Warren Oates) disapproves. They continue to see each other. And then, unexpectedly given their oddball but low-key manner, Kit shoots Holly’s father. They burn down her house and run away, encountering various people as they make their way to the Badlands of Montana.

Described plainly, these events and behaviors may sound boilerplate; described in a little more detail, they might sound borderline nonsensical. Holly doesn’t seem to hate her father, nor does she seem more than mildly concerned about his passing – but she doesn’t appear exactly unfeeling, either. She narrates the movie in even tones, describing her infatuation with Kit directly but with more of a dreamlike trance than real passion. Maybe this does make her a good match for Kit, who kills so matter-of-factly, he seems to be hiding his disturbed nature in plain sight.

Their first order of business as fugitives is to hide in the woods, building forts and traps, and burying personal artifacts – revealing an unnerving childishness (the original trailer, included on the DVD, also emphasizes the plainspoken strangeness: “They lived together in a treehouse. In 1959, they murdered a lot of people.”). They’re like kids acting out the parts of young, charismatic lovers on the run.

Sheen as Kit does resemble James Dean, as the movie points out, and as the real Charles Starkweather was said to, but with his hair sticking out in all directions, he also looks like a peculiar caricature of Dean’s youthful charisma. Sheen was in his early 30s during the shoot — he and Spacek were both playing almost a decade younger than their real ages — and while he does look shockingly young (and sometimes, less shocking, reminiscent of his son Charlie in his own earlier years), the disparity between Sheen’s age, Kit’s age, and Kit’s behavior makes the character’s overgrown-child vibe all the more unsettling.

Indeed, time in general feels elastic in Badlands: Kit and Holly date for an unspecified period of time, and their travels feel unmoored, too. When Holly describes one of Kit’s acquaintances as “from the days of the garbage route,” she makes it sound like years earlier, rather than, more likely, a few weeks.

Yet Badlands isn’t just or even mostly a disturbing, disorienting experience. It’s almost certainly Malick’s darkly funniest movie, with Kit’s weird, deadpan conviction and the couple’s childlike innocence. And even from his first film, Malick was assembling beautiful images. The DVD (and presumably also the Blu-ray, unseen by me) looks gorgeous, highlighting Malick’s extensive use of blues and greens — not just in his perennial favorite subjects of grass and sky, but in the outfits of the characters.

In turning Badlands dreamy and reflective, Malick drifts from the story’s true-crime origins (even as the movie’s deaths remain sad and scary) into something more impressionistic and original. For contrast and background information, the Criterion DVD includes a 1993 episode of American Justice about the Starkweather case. It describes a less idyllic neighborhood than the one Malick shows us, with photos of shabby houses, and an uglier, seamier version of the lovers’ spree, with a higher body count and grislier murders. But the ambiguity of the Holly character — the way she tires of Kit but zones out instead of escaping; the way she shies away from murder but never stops Kit from committing the act — is echoed in the episode’s exploration of her real-life counterpart Caril Ann Fugate, who insists on her innocence in the face of conflicting stories about her role in the crimes.

Through the TV episode, Fugate is more available on the disc than Malick himself, who does not participate in commentaries, interviews, or other manner of promotional or explanatory contact. This leaves us turning to others for input, like Billy Weber, the associate editor of Badlands who collaborated on several later Malick features. He’s ostensibly interviewed by Criterion to talk about the editing of the film, and he does, but much of his time is spent speaking for the always-silent director. He talks about how the more straightforward nature of Badlands was a product of Malick being a first-time director on a tight budget — and how even at the time, he was interested in pushing away from traditional narratives.

Weber describes Malick’s interest in the “other things that are going on in the world” during a movie’s story, pointing to a fleeting shot of a mailman on a runway toward the end of Badlands, exiting the airplane that will take Kit and Holly away to stand trial. That shot was important to Malick, Weber claims, because he wanted to show someone who had only the faintest awareness of the characters, if any. Similarly, the movie’s fleeting shots of nature hint at the greater world Malick gives almost equal weight in later films like The Tree of Life. Weber also notes the role of voiceover in all of Malick’s work, particularly the editing, and how they progressed together from written narration in Badlands to more experimental voiceover in Days of Heaven and beyond.

Badlands, then, in addition to being a wonderful movie, can now offer context for the rest of Malick’s career. It’s not an ideal from which the filmmaker gradually deviated (at least not to the filmmaker himself); it is a starting point, clear and distinct.

RATING 8 / 10
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