Friday, January 22, 2010

Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973): Doing His Best James Dean

Terrence Malick is a unique and somewhat frustrating figure in contemporary film. In the years since Badlands, his 1973 debut, he's made only three movies: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005). Highly regarded for his widescreen, naturalistic compositions, Malick maintains a private life unusual for one of the most lauded types of modern artist, the film director. His background as a young philosophy professor, news magazine journalist, and uncredited scriptwriter for Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood has had great impact on his modest output. Badlands is violent, poetic, ironic and weirdly romantic, and as confident, revelatory and exciting a film debut as has ever been made.

An impossibly young-looking Martin Sheen (and his amazing hair) and a willowy and winsome Sissy Spacek play Kit and Holly, two aimless, and indeed amoral, heartland American kids who kill a lot of innocent people. When Kit sees her twirling her baton in her front yard, it's a textbook example of what will come to be called "meet cute" but it will not end that way. The estimable Warren Oates plays Spacek's widower father and soon he will of course forbid Kit to see his daughter any longer. We all know this story, we know its moves and its parries, but we have never seen it quite like this before.

What's more romantic than teenagers on the run? The trouble they can get into is more desirable than the slow death they see at home. That's why Holly doesn't escape when she has the chance: "It was better to spend a week with one who loved me for what I was than years of loneliness." What does Kit have to say if his plans to hit the road with Holly are cut short by the law? "I can't deny we've had fun though. And that's more'n I can say for some." Yeah, get your kicks on Route 66, huh, kid?

The 1950s real-life crimes that inspired the movie, those of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, seem to epitomize the shadow of juvenile delinquency that was blamed on rock'n'roll, comic books, and rebel movies of the era. "You know who that sumbitch looks like? You know, don't you?" says one cop to another after Kit's capture (surely that can't be a spoiler!). "I'll kiss your ass if he don't look like James Dean." Cut to Sheen, smiling, satisfied, vindicated. I think Starkweather was a harbinger of social misfits who would look to pop culture to fill in for their missing personalities; in that way he prefigured the modern era, whether one was a sociopath or not.

Starkweather himself may have never struck the above pose but it's still an insightful piece of myth-making that doubles on itself: a movie about a man who modeled himself after the movies. Martin Sheen as Charles Starkweather aping James Dean as Jett Rink in Giant (1956). And, again, we all know what happened to James Dean. And Charlie Starkweather. The myth, and the reality, is a foregone conclusion. That's why we love it.

So death features blandly in the lovers' everyday lives long before they flee. Kit bets his garbageman coworker a dollar that he won't eat a dead dog someone has thrown out with their trash; Holly tosses her pet catfish, gasping and twitching, into the backyard watermelon patch without a backward glance because she thinks it's sick. After getting a job in a dairy farm, Kit regards a dead cow with disaffected curiosity. Holly's father kills her dog as punishment for disobeying him when she sees Kit again.

The first human death is the obvious one: Holly's father. Gutshot while standing in the living room of his modest country home seems a particular humiliation; Holly runs to him, touches his face as he blinks tenderly, and she asks, "Daddy, are you gonna be okay?" Holly is still a child. And like children, they go and live in a treehouse like Robinson Crusoe or perhaps the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, far from the gaze of parents, police and other authority figures. He wants his alias to be James and hers, Priscilla (natch). They dance coolly to "Love is Strange" and rig deadly booby traps. Woe to all those that come up on them. The most trigger-happy person Holly ever knew, Kit rarely hesitates in pulling the trigger. He shoots lawmen in the back, hapless teenagers without even aiming, and even his old co-worker, who seems to take it in stride.

Near the climax - suffused as it is - the police bear down on Kit as he speeds across countless dirt roads, and he glances at himself in the rearview mirror and fixes his hair. When he (intentionally) gives up he builds a pile of rocks just before they arrive and says as he surrenders, "That there is where you caught me." He's aware of his image just like any good 20th century kid. It's all he really is aware of. He's self-conscious without a real self. "Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if he'd hear the doctor pronounce him dead. Or if he'd be able to read what the papers said about him the next day from the other side. He dreaded the idea of being shot down alone he said, without a girl screaming out his name."

Holly may never scream out Kit's name - she never shows that much wherewithal - but it's her oblivious schoolgirl narration that elevates this film to something so profound. Flat and without insight she relates the events of their story and never seems to apprehend the enormity of their plight. "Kit was the most trigger-happy person I ever met," she states after another murder. "He claimed as long as you were playing for keeps and the law's comin' atcha, it was okay to shoot all witnesses... He never seemed like a violent before." Voiceover at odds with the action on-screen would become a staple for Malick; Spacek's voice adds a dreamlike and hypnotic quality, as if we can be lulled into thinking we're not seeing what we truly are seeing. Any wit or humor seem inadvertent. I really can't do justice to Sheen and Spacek's delivery throughout; I can't tell if their speech is sincere or a put-on. Damn kids.

Malick began his career with the wide panoramic shots that would become his trademark, dramatic, intimate, nearly metaphysical images that summed up characters' states of mind as well as their relationship to the landscape. The cinematography, a shared duty between Tak Fujimoto (who went on to be director of photography on major John Hughes and Jonathan Demme films), Stevan Larner, and Brian Probyn is nothing short of glorious. Asides of birds, threatening clouds, old farms and lush sunsets lend a quaint postcard quality to the proceedings, a little something sent back home from a one-way trip to Hell. Music, too, is essential to the tale; Malick depicts a world of terrible, otherworldly yet mundane beauty set to the eerie, childlike music of Carl Orff; the score by George Tipton prefigures the indie films of the '80s and '90s in its quirky innocence.

Badlands is truly an American film, obsessed with the daily minutiae of the lives of its characters within the unforgiving landscape of the title as they race to escape the meanness in this world. Vague plans of reaching Montana are lightly discussed. Kit spins a bottle to figure out which direction to drive. "We'll keep on heading towards that mountain. Just remember I said it wasn't such a hot idea," he says. Once their destination is named, their fate is sealed. The end is very near. And if we never get a distinct read on what drives them, perhaps Malick intended as such. Imagery and mood predominate, not psychological profiling. Despite their protestations of love, loyalty, and romance, Holly and Kit are as empty as the desert they race through, and probably as eternal.

Sheen with Malick in his uncredited bit part


jwshoup said...

I finally sat down and watched Badlands. I can see why the film was probably revelatory in 1973, but I found it awfully predictable in 2010, and became impatient with it about halfway through. I've seen the story too many times now. That said, I did find things to admire in it. I loved the long, wide shots, and the editing style that didn't dwell too long on any shot, "signifying" its importance. It was fun to see Sheen and Spacek so young. I thought the feeling of the film presaged (and inspired?)The Executioner's Song (not so much the movie as the book).

I have to say, I'm not a huge Malick fan. I think he may have grown into a director I really liked if he would have made more movies. I feel like Badlands is sort of like Blood Simple. The Coen brothers first effort was very good, not great, but informed their later great movies such as No Country For Old Men. Days of Heaven was better than Badlands, and The Thin Red Line was better than Days of Heaven. I didn't see The New World. But in many ways, each of those three movies was the same movie, and I would have liked to see Malick stretch himself on a film and make something great.

Will Errickson said...

Sometimes I think Malick is a little too precious with his one-movie-every-other-decade style. Come on, man, keep up with the world! You make a good point about the Blood Simple/No Country link too; I felt exactly the same way.