I have always considered Terrence Malick to be a frustrating director. His works span from historical fictions to disruptive family dramas to portrayals of the music scene in Austin, yet I have not be able to solely identify with him as an artist. There are other equally frustrating directors in the same camp for me, such as David Lynch or even Ridley Scott. Yet every time I view Twin Peaks or revisit Mulholland Drive, I know I will experience something new. There’s a sense of purpose in Lynch’s disorientation. With Malick, however, his type of disconnection has almost never worked for me. A pattern has evolved in his recent pictures, with long panning shots across vast reaches of earth and space mixed in with very little dialogue or meaning that is given to the plotline. Perhaps that is why I am still surprised and grateful that Malick’s first film, 1973’s Badlands, remains his most coherent, meaningful and best motion picture, as it tells the story of two outsiders who go on a killing spree in South Dakota, clinging to each other and the land.
Written, produced and directed solely by Malick, Badlands is loosely based on a string of murders in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958. James Dean wannabe Charles Starkweather, who was 19 at the time, along with his 14-year-old accomplice girlfriend, Caril Fugate, began a killing spree that left 10 dead. These murders caused hysteria between news stations and law enforcement, who remained perplexed and worried, unsure of who could be the next victim. Starkweather and Fugate’s love story is one based in violent terror, involving the deaths of Fugate’s stepfather, mother and two-year-old sister, as well as a brutal attack on a dog with the barrel of a shotgun and the rape of a woman who had offered the couple a ride.
This piece of history could have made Malick’s first film a serious crime drama that was based around the rise of serial killers from the 1950s. Instead, he deconstructed the historical aspect of Starkweather and Fugate entirely, weaving an echo of the original story into a magical, dreamlike quality that became Badlands. Heavily utilizing character development in his two lead roles, casting likable Martin Sheen to play twenty-five year old Kit Carruthers, and Sissy Spacek to play fifteen year old Holly Sargis, the director ensured audiences would invest in these two characters who mask their insanity with faux-normalcy and likability. In an article from The Globe and Mail in 2013, writer Geoff Pevere remarks that “Badlands took one of the most troubling incidents of the buttoned-down 1950s and reimagined it provocatively for the dubiously liberated, Vietnam-fatigued, Nixonian-hardened 1970s.”
If Badlands was considered a provocative moviegoing experience for those who saw it in the 1970s, it is now a blend of a fairy tale crime drama for 2017 audiences, who have witnessed much worse in the past few months than what Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis ever accomplish in the film’s 94 minute runtime. As deviant Kit murders Holly’s father for not allowing the two to continue their love affair, they escape their town of Fort Dupree, South Dakota, creating a fantastical excursion that films such as Moonrise Kingdom, Mud and The Kings of Summer have tried to imitate. We witness Kit and Holly building tree houses, fishing in the lake and awkwardly jiving to Mike and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” much akin to Sam and Suzy’s dance scene to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de L’Amour” in 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. In a culture that is now appreciative of quirky, oddball characters, the audience of today are conditioned to accept Kit and Holly and even root for them.
Yet as the cracks begin to show, Malick’s intention for his characters and story shines through, for this couple is doomed to fail. The couple’s definition of nomadic, unbothered paradise is tainted by the destruction of youthful wants and desires. Kit cannot seem to catch fish with his handmade net, so he begins to shoot at them in the stream, disrupting the illusion of their pioneer life. His self-loathing causes him to blame Holly, to say she’s simply on this journey with him not because of her undying love but only because she’s bored. Kit’s right; Holly becomes restless as fifteen year olds often do, complaining to Kit that there’s not any good places to eat or that camping in the forest makes her at times feel less than human. Impending reality starts to creep in and Holly can only dream of what is to come next in her life. “One day while taking a look at some vistas while staring in Dad’s stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl born in Texas whose father was a sign painter who has only just so many years to live,” Holly reflects through her narration, “It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought, where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me or killed anybody?” These existential life questions lay before Kit and Holly as the pair wander through the vast regions of the Midwest, untethered to any real values or even to each other and their real intentions for these murders carrying no true meaning or purpose.
Kit and Holly are damned from the very beginning, taking pressure off the audience of whether or not to feel sympathy for these characters. “Nobody’s coming out of this thing happy. Especially not us. I can’t deny we had fun though,” Kit admits to a recording in a beaten down Voice-O-Graph, moments after murdering Holly’s father. As the couple runs faster and farther away from societal norms, Badlands’ main characters behave more like strange bedfellows than lovers. Holly begins to find Kit unbearable, staring at a copy of a map for hours while Kit plans beside her in the car, spelling all of her thoughts into the roof of her mouth so Kit cannot see them. And even after every death or heinous act, Kit tries to prove that he was in the right, as so to make amends for his behavior. “Here’s a list of everything I borrowed,” he says as he gives it to Mr. Carver, a man Kit and Holly had just taken hostage for a whole day. There’s penance to pay for their crimes and the pair both know they are doomed without every speaking a word of their worries to each other. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, they hold on tightly to one another in the darkness of the Montana Badlands, swaying silently to the heartbreaking tune of Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell,” knowing the jig is nearly up. “Boy, if I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it’d be a hit,” Kit quietly remarks in the darkness, with only the headlights to light the lovers’ path. In these moments, he is not thinking about his girl’s ruined life that will lay before her once this is all over with, but his own. He remains adamantly convinced through the whole film and in this final moment together that if people really took the time to know him, they would see his side of things.
Badlands was a reflection of the growingly apathetic culture that was hardened by the tumultuous events of the 1970s. Watching it now, with its sequestered terror cast alongside billowy long shots of the American terrain, I cannot help but to believe that has been Malick’s true intention all along in each of his films, to provide a disorienting and jarring re-imagination that points to the confusion of truest human experience. In the end, life is but a dream.