Badlands is director Terrence Malick’s first film. Already his signature stuff is in place: simple story, voice over naration, and nature imagry is all here. I was pretty interested in seeing this film after loving Days of Heaven. I’m really getting to love Malick as a director; I’m lining up more and more of his films and I expect they’ll all be good or at least very interesting. Though I think Days of Heaven was better than Badlands, Badlands was still very good and intriguing.
Badlands is based on a true story: the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree back in the fifties. I love the tagline for this film: “In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.” Though the film is not reallly that funny, the tagline is pretty humorous to me, and it kind of reminds me of the tagline for Bonnie and Clyde as well: “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people”. Kind of a similar thing going on there. Despite this, I don’t think I really expected Badlands to be a lot like Bonnie and Clyde even though there are similarities. I just can’t see Malik doing anything that fun. Bonnie and Clyde is one of my favorite films, and even though it definitely shows the bad things that come along with being an outlaw, it also shows how fun it can be, how not boring it is, especially in the beginning. I felt like Malick with his normal sense of detatchment would not want to show it like this big fun adventure, and I turned out to be right. However, their killing spree does not look that bad either. It’s just kind of there.
Holly (Sissy Spacek) is a fifteen year old girl, twirling a batton on her front lawn and looking pretty darn bored. One day, this guy Kit (Martin Sheen) comes along. They start talking and eventually do more than talk. Her dad (Warren Oates) isn’t so happy about Holly hanging around a guy ten years older than her “from the wrong side of the tracks, so called” and tries to break it up. Her kills her dog as a punishment for disobeying him, and then makes her take clarinet lessons to “keep [her] off the streets.” Kit eventually decides he wants to leave town and take Holly with him. Doing this necessitates (or at least he thinks it does) killing her father. Holly takes it pretty well; though she is somewhat shocked initially she gets over it pretty fast. They leave, and set up camp in the woods somewhere.
I recently read an article comparing Moonrise Kingdom to this film. For some strange reason I decided to read this before I saw Badlands, depriving me of any connection I could have made on my own. This part where they build a tree house in the woods really reminded me of Moonrise Kingdom; it’s pretty obvious and I would hope that I would have noticed even if I hadn’t read this article but I can never be sure. Everything from the music and the way Holly reads aloud to the fact that these two people ran away and built a tree house reminds me of Moonrise Kingdom. I think the connection is pretty valid and I’m mad that I didn’t give myself a chance to notice it myself.
The two of them stay in the woods for awhile, but eventually some guys show up looking for them. Kit shoots the guys and he and Holly have to leave. The rest of the movie goes on with them travelling around, Kit shooting people for no apparent reason, and Holly getting increasingly bored with the whole thing. She wants to go home (which is a problem because her house is actually burned down and all) and she gets her chance when the cops finally do catch up with Kit. He seems okay with it, even getting executed for killing all of those people.
He doesn’t seem to really care about much. He is always leaving things behind, like he wants to be discovered or something. He records his voice twice, the first time leaving a fake suicide note before burning down Holly’s house to throw the cops off the trail, and next when they occupy a rich guy’s house for a few hours. He professes his beliefs constantly, but they don’t seem based on anything. I feel like he just kind of goes with whatever is in his head and sounds good at the time. All the scenes with him and Holly getting all romantic seem forced, but I think that’s the point. They’re not really in love, Holly may have thought they were in the beginning because she’s a bored fifteen year old girl and she doesn’t know any better. By the end she realizes on some level that there’s not much to their relationship and she really doesn’t care about him that much. It’s like they are both trying to conform to some sort of image they have of themselves as romantic outlaws or something, but at the end of the day their hearts aren’t really in it.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that this story is so empty and that this emptiness is the point of it. Holly and especially Kit feel like they need to be doing something, just for the sake of doing it I guess. Unfortunately, this leads to him killing a bunch of people. Not that the film really shows this as a horrible thing; it just shows it as something that happened. Obviously killing random people for no reason isn’t a good thing, and I don’t think it ever gives Kit any kind of direction or purpose, just something to do for the time being. It kind of reminds me of “The Hollow Men”, a poem by TS Elliot that talks about that same kind of emptiness, and how people try to overcome it in brutal ways.
Badlands is kind of a strange watch. I did enjoy it though, even though it’s not very emotionally involving. I generally like Marin Sheen and he did not disappoint here. Supposedly he is supposed to be like James Dean, but I’ve never seen James Dean in anything (I gotta fix that one of these days), so I couldn’t really judge. The only thing about watching this film that you have to watch out for is being preoccupied about the exact reasons Kit is killing everybody. For awhile I was really trying to figure that out, but it’s never personal so after awhile I just started thinking about it as an act itself and that helped. So, while I still like Days of Heaven better (I think it had a more interesting point and was presented more effectively), Badlands is still an interesting debut from Malick and I’m eager to watch some more of his films.
“At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars