Nearly as haunting as the real thing.
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Cinematography Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri
When one takes in the vast emptiness that is the American Badlands, it makes the mind wonder what in the hell can live out there. Terrence Malick gives an answer to this question by pointing out the emptiness spans more than the exterior of humanity. His Kit and Holly (Sheen and Spacek) are young, beautiful and bored. They find each other, Kit a 25 year old recently unemployed garbage man and Holly, 15 years and living through what she sees as she twirls a baton in front of her house. When Holly first sees Kit, she sees James Dean. Kit sees in Holly someone who thinks he looks like James Dean might work for his version of the movie in his head.
They carry on in secret for a while. Soon though, Holly’s widowed father (Oates) finds out and puts an end to it. This doesn’t match with the vision in Kit’s head, so the younger man kills the older, concocts a story and burns down Holly’s home while she waits for Kit to decide what to do next. Her response to her father’s death right in front of her is almost as disturbing as Kit deciding to kill him. The horror is in their lack of rage, fear, or any indication that they are startled by any of this. This is Malick finding the core of his characters as a vast empty space and it’s the wise decision of a young filmmaker to let the story reveal itself to the viewer without obvious cues.
The first days outside of society are the most exciting for the couple. They hide the car, build a tree house and gather wood for a fire. They steal from nearby neighbors. They revel in their freedom, and unaware how hard life will get for them. Bounty hunters spot the couple, but Kit sees them first. More killing, cowardly actions justified by stories Kit tells Holly, who while hiding, only sees the aftermath and two of them shot in the back. Kit feels it was brave and justified. Holly reserves judgement.
If you know anything about the homicidal spree of Starkweather and his young girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, you should know how this movie plays out. The real thing actually had much more death than we see here, but it feels like an economical storytelling choice by the writer director. We don’t need to see the multitude of murders to understand what motivates the killer and his strangely unconcerned girlfriend.
Malick’s accuracy is in giving the viewer parallel visions of the land outside and the emptiness inside of these two, American’s sitting outside of the dream. They have their own dreams, which tend to mirror a fantasy even as they make it a nightmare for the locals.
One of the more enduring images in a film with many stark images is the vision of Kit and Holly driving across the plains where there are no roads. I have never seen anyone drive cars in this expanse. It reminds the viewer that there was a time between covered wagons and Eisenhower’s freeway system.
Malick hits all of the notes soundly in Badlands. He shows that one doesn’t have to get the facts 100 percent on the head if one understands how to tell a story. The viewer gets a clear indication of the type of person who would go on a killing spree, one who’s mind fantasizes to replace the hole in his soul. Similarly, we have a vision of the person who would stand by such a vacuous soul…until she gets bored herself again.
Spacek and Sheen are note perfect in their performances. They are young, hungry and lacking that critical component of compassion that helps bind people together in society. Notes that other, denser filmmakers would pound on the head, Malick, Sheen and Spacek give just enough of a light touch to make the message of soul deprivation more stark and scary.
Nearly as haunting as the real thing.
(***** out of *****)