Things I’ve Learned: Badlands

Now that we’ve completed the 1970s in film and still keeping up with the ongoing Decades series, I introduce to thee a new feature to the blog: Things I’ve Learned. Pretty self-explanatory, a feature in which I discuss, in list form, what I have learned from a particular film or album. There’s no limit to how many things I will talk about, because frankly there’s no limit to how many things I learn. How fitting that the first up to bat is Terrence Malick’s Badlands, a film that finished at sixteen on my top twenty five favorite films of the 70s. And though it’s no Days of Heaven (number one on the same list) Malick’s debut feature is just as good of a slice of Americana life and 70s maverick filmmaking. In my review I made it no secret that I admire Badlands, with its evocative American gas station postcard photography and poignant investigation of the potential implications of a “Hollywoodized” American culture. Unfortunately I was unable to go in depth into the film or discuss specific scenes or even Sissy Spacek’s awesome narration.

1. Yo, forget Natural Born Killers already, dammit. Every review I read has Badlands compared to Oliver Stone’s steaming pile of dogshit excuse for a film. Enough, I say. The only thing Malick’s Bandlands has in common to Stone’s film is the concept and Badlands is not about concept, really. Both films, in their own way, do satirize their subjects, but Stone’s film is balls-to-the-wall, trying to floor you with every crazy scene. It’s a film that is a product of Quentin Tarantino’s success at the time, desperately attempting to win over his stylized violence obsessed fanboys. Malick’s film is quieter; less like an amphetamine nightmare and more like an unexpected nightmare derived from a dream of an ambitious individual. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Badlands, but the implications and stillness of it all has settled quickly into me like a damp chill. Like a daydream, or a fever is actually a great way to describe it, from a weaker document. One of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen about life in America, that’s the truth.

2. Unsettling, how? It’s the behavior of the characters and not entirely on the ruthless murders that take place at the hands of Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers. From the beginning, it fills you not really with eerie dread. Normally I hate it when films work solely on the idea of dread, but Malick somehow avoids this, through creative means. Rather with a real sense of curiosity about where you’re going to be taken. The opening scenes in the town do a good job of this; the bits of dirt on the back of Kit’s shirt as he approaches Spacek’s Holly Sargis (“just a-twirlin’ my baton”); the way he begins his sentence of what he does to try and talk himself down from admitting his job (“I don’t mind getting up early…”), the way Spacek handles the scene where she backs away from him, fixated on this guy but unsure of what to do, the camera always framing her face but staggering around right along with her. It’s all done so lyrically, like right out of a classic American poem or novel. So great.

3. The film is set the 1950s (Kit is even compared with James Dean by Holly when she first meets him), and part of the film’s disturbing quality is this unmistakable, ingrained politeness of these people. The way Kit holds the door open for someone he’s just shot; excuse the grammar at the end of his recorded message; the way neither Kit nor Holly really know what to do with themselves in the wealthy man’s house, looking at expensive liquor instead of actually drinking it, moving awkwardly from chair to chair. They may be brash young fools who are in way over their heads with what they’re doing, but they’re civil about it, and surely more street smart than similar people from other generations that are depicted in film. Compare Kit to, say, any character in Larry Clark’s Kids, who despite their rebelliousness and exposure to a harsh, uninviting world would probably piss their pants if they had to live in the wild for days at a time.

4. It’s based on a true story, the story of the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Malick never acknowledges this anywhere in the film, not in the beginning or the end. It doesn’t even reference anything about the real-life story. Starkweather and Fugate killed a total of eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming during their road trip, while Kit and Holly kill six people in South Dakota. The killings of Starkweather and Fugate were brutal, capped off by strangling and stabbing a two-year-old and snapping the neck of a dog. The killings in Badlands, however, while merciless were designed to imply a sort of magic wand quality that eliminates small nuisances. It’s never bloody and the violence in which Kit and Holly employ is kind of fairytale because the characters are living in a fairytale. Later films that are influenced by Badlands and the Starkweather-Fugate killings like Kalifornia or Stone’s Natural Born Killers really miss the mark and focus too much on the violence and brutality than the story and humanity. Malick did it right.

5. As for the narration Malick used them all over the place in The Thin Red Line as a sort of emotional collage all over those hills, often helping out by saying or implying what the cameras were unable to (as most good narrations do). I got irritated with them in the first few minutes of Badlands, and not because of her voice/accent (which are both awesome), rather in the blankness of their delivery. Soon, though, I realized that the blankness works perfectly; you quickly start to get to whatever ’emotional core’ there is in this film through her as the situation onscreen gets more and more chilling and completely ‘gone’. Holly’s narration turns almost poetic. There’s lines aplenty like that in Badlands “I spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, where nobody could read ’em”, for instance, or a telling one: “At this moment I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sittin’ there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.”

6. Holly looks at life like any other teenager; curiosities abound within her, and to her each moment of every day seems like an enormous deal. Her journal entries sprinkled throughout the film as a narrative device makes the film more than just a mechanical news story about a malicious psychopath, but rather tries to say just how much impact the killing of complete strangers can have on a person. At the end of the film Holly is no longer the naïve small-town girl that she once was, but someone who has lost all of their previous innocence. Sissy Spacek’s every move as Holly is perfect and she especially succeeds in pulling off the gradual transformation that the role requires. Making it easy to see why she would later become a great star, Spacek gives what may very well be the best performance (along with 2001’s In the Bedroom) of her forty year acting career here.

7. The shot of Kit stepping blank-faced onto the body of a deceased cow, not sure what he’s even doing while Holly’s voice says “Some of the stuff he did was strange” is as frightening as any scene in a horror film. Some other particularly frightening details, mostly randomly assembled because they don’t fit in anywhere else: the quick cut to Kit hurling the kerosene around the house, completely unhinged, lost in his ‘film star’ moment of testosterone; his swagger after the first murder (“If you don’t believe me, see for yourself”, bored) as the camera lingers on Holly, dressed up like an erect doll; the line “Get in the car, Red” and what it’s come to mean; Kit’s nervous pause while trying to catch a fish as the truck passes by; the line “Before we left, he shot a football that he considered excess luggage”; Kit combing his hair in the mirror near the end; the last lines of the film.

8. “Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat ’em like enemies; there’s always an outside chance you can learn something. Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoints of others. Consider the minority opinion. But try to get along with the majority of opinion, once it’s accepted.” – Kit Carruthers

9. The performances of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are immense. Martin Sheen swaggers with the masochism of someone who badly wants to be a James Dean-style character, a cool macho outcast, but it’s clear that he’s just a dumb loser given to weak teenage idealization rather than rational thought. Sissy Spacek is always perfect for any character that is meek and feminine and she looks incredibly young here despite the fact that she was in her mid-twenties at the time of filming. As the film nears its conclusion, the two characters are increasingly dwarfed by their situation and the landscape. Whereas before, they always seem in reach of some sort of hideout, now they’re dwarfed by the endless plains of the badlands. An empty loneliness and desolation begins to engulf the two, giving way to a desperation at the situation they’re in. The mix of teenage romance, brutal violence and an otherworldly desolation in their lives is what makes Badlands such a compelling film. This is a fantastic film, created with density and an intelligence for filmmaking. I am glad I own it on DVD so I may watch it whenever I please.