Badlands: shoot first

by Michael King

from Jump Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

"With usura," says Ezra Pound, "no picture is made to endure nor to live with, but it is made to sell and sell quickly." This is generally as true of films as it is of murals, cathedrals, or bank buildings: the production of great films, like great architecture, requires continuing investments of enormous amounts of capital — the sort of capital now only available to conglomerates like Gulf and Western, the new owners of Paramount. The control exercised by the sources of such capital, concerned not with aesthetics but with profit, while not always direct, is inevitable and inevitably pernicious — a good instance being the current vulgar promotion campaign for Paramount's The Great Gatsby. Whatever the merits that film may finally have, its contemporary interest and success will turn upon fashions, upon star-cult, upon the garish and pavlovian display of wealth — in short, upon all those fantastic earthly delights for which Gatsby is the hollow symbol. Directly caught up as films are in this parade of bourgeois culture and consumption, they most often become, not works of art, but simply artifacts, symptoms of social reality, interesting only as they succeed in vividly reflecting morbid social phenomena. And when capital directly invades the production process much more often than is admitted, but seldom crucial since it is usually unnecessary) we get botched masterpieces (the classic example is Von Stroheim's Greed) or propaganda (The Green Berets) or cowardly purges (Hollywood Ten). Independence does not insure good art, and in an expensive medium independence is often self-defeating; but dependence, continued over decades and become institutionally depraved, nearly always prevents great art and cheapens good art.

Under such conditions, it is a great pleasure to discover Badlands, a film independently written, produced and directed by Terrence Malick, a screenwriter with no previous features to his credit. Malick managed to raise enough money from relatives and friends to hire competent actors and good technicians on his own, thus maintaining personal control over his screenplay. The result is not a grainy underground experiment, but an accomplished piece of film art, and a very fine first film indeed. Badlands is far from flawless, and it does not entirely avoid the glossy cynicism of many more well-endowed films, but its errors are the consequences of considerable risks, and it deserves a large audience.

Badlands is a treatment of an established cinematic genre, which might be called the "mythical-criminal." The film follows the murderous career of Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), and his young companion Holly (Sissy Spacek); the story is loosely based upon an actual series of murders which happened about fifteen years ago. Although the period of this film is recent, it works in an established "outlaw" mode made familiar by Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, and the characterization of Kit partly relies on his gunslinger morality, or lack of morality, derived from grade-B westerns. Comparisons will be made to Bonnie and Clyde, the film which most directly underlies Malick's attitude toard the two "lovers." But these are not Depression-made desperadoes, and the killings are nearly motiveless, so that the adolescent sexuality of Holly and Kit makes more sense than the similar references to impotence in Penn's movie. The narration throughout is done in the schoolgirl voice and style of 15-year old Holly (we see Kit almost wholly through her eyes), a "li'l ol' gal from Texas," whose attitude toward murder, even the murder of her own father (Warren Oates) is emotionless and distracted — she fills the story with irrelevant detail and pathetic "literary" embellishments, drawn from schoolbooks and teenage fan magazines. The two characters, constructed as they are upon the fragments of popular culture, give much more of the movie a parodic tone, although the only explicit film references are to James Dean (Kit looks and tries to act like him), and the Dean movie Giant (one shot of Kit facing the sunset, his rifle across his shouts). The humor provoked by the air of sentimental parody is itself an ironic commentary on the murders. Kit and Holly behave as though the murders were, after all, only movie murders: just "pop!" says Kit, describing the death of Holly's father. To reinforce this impression, the shootings are filmed not in an elaborate Peckinpah style, but in the quick, chaste, nearly bloodless style of say, Gunsmoke.

As the film begins, Holly's voice (we see her in her girl's clean but cluttered bedroom) offers a little prologue — she and her father have moved from Texas to a small town in South Dakota, after the death of Holly's mother. Holly speaks in a toneless, light drawl, as though she were reading back her own diary, written much later, and phrases like "little did I realize that..." are her plantive indications that these are memories recollected much later — after, one presumes, the main action of the film. The mechanical foreboding of lines like these are the only signals we get of what is to follow. Otherwise the opening minutes are a straightforward and mildly comic exposition of the "young love." A viewer who might be unaware of the film's material is likely to be very surprised when the first murder occurs. Malick's intent (somewhat vitiated by necessary advertising) is, I think, to make the murder of Holly's father appear almost an accident, a reflex action, the consequences of which Kit is essentially incapable of understanding except in a most superficial sense. In any case, we see Kit knock off early from his garbage route (he's fired the next day), introduce himself to Holly, who is twirling her baton on her lawn: and then a series of sentimental scenes of teen life and love, with maudlin commentary by Holly.

(Sissy Spacek's characterization of Holly has to be delivered almost entirely through the narrative voice, which is done very well — the role itself calls for near catatonia: after their first sex, she asks "is that all there is to it?" and gets barely a grunt in return. Sheen has a little more room to work, as Kit fancies himself something of a swaggering Mr. Cool, a difficult double conception which Sheen does well.)

This romantic sequence continues until Holly's father (a grizzled sign-painter done with brief exactness by Warren Oates) puts a stop to their meetings — and quite rationally, since Kit is no teenager, but a 25-year-old lumpen with, as they say, no future, who shouldn't be messing with a schoolgirl like Holly in the first place. Kit makes an arrogant and futile appeal to Holly's father, and then arrives at the house one day with a pistol ("handy thing to have around") intending to frighten "Daddy" and run off with Holly. But "Daddy" does not behave like he's supposed to, although he is visibly frightened (there is a fine quick-cut to Oates' shudder as Sheen fires the gun into the floor). Instead, Oates walks slowly toward the phone and Kit, now scared himself, shoots him almost without thinking ("he was provokin' me, so I popped him"). Holly's response is to weep briefly, and then quietly to submit to Kit's plans to fake a suicide recording, burn the house and leave town. As this brief summary implies, the getaway plan seems to be Kit's simple-minded imitation of movie killers, by which he hopes to "gain time."

Kit and Holly run to the open countryside, where they set up quaint housekeeping in a tree house, listen to the radio, go fishing, even raise a few chickens, and train for their inevitable discovery by the law — which has, by the end of this overlong sequence, become identical with the "outside" or "adult" world. ("Like all couples, " says Holly, "we had our little problems.") When, because of Kit's carelessness, they are finally discovered, he methodically shoots his way out of a trap — and Holly reports on the growth of their notoriety as they seek a new hideout. They stop for a moment with Kit's only friend, Cato from the garbage route, but he tries to run and Kit kills him, and probably two other friends (this is not certain). After these murders, they are really on the run, and head through the Badlands toward Canada, in a stolen Cadillac filled with provisions taken from the house of the Cadillac's owner ("we figured it was the quickest way to get the stuff we needed"). Kit momentarily considers shooting the rich man and his deaf maid (a gothic touch in a gaudy small town mansion), instead he just locks them in a closet and the two carefree children light out for the territory, (In a tense moment, Malick himself appears at the door as an associate of the rich man, but Kit gets rid of him with a lie. Malick disclaims any Hitchcockian significance for his role, saying only that it was the result of an emergency when the hired, actor failed to appear on time.)

As they travel aimlessly through the western brushland, spinning a bottle for directions, the tedium begins to wear on Holly, and she loses interest in Kit's fantasies. There is a lyric moment as the two dance in the headlights of the car, to a Nat King Cole song on the radio, but Holly is tired of running "like an animal, without even a chance to bathe." When a helicopter tracks them into the desert, Holly watches as Kit shoots another pursuer and escapes; she turns herself in. Without his girl to "scream his name when he dies," Kit surrenders to a couple of state troopers, who drive him in to an anti-hero's welcome — the locals are eager for a memento of the famous murderer.

As the title implies, Badlands is an attempt to give a cultural explanation for what has become, recently, an almost common U.S. event — the reckless string of what the newspapers call "senseless" murders, Malick seems to be suggesting that Kit is only an extreme example of a common U.S. type: the sort of callow, miseducated, desperate but arrogant youth who, recalcitrant industrial fodder, move from one demeaning job to another, and only occasionally, like Kit almost by accident, break out to wreak indiscriminate havoc. Kit first kills Holly's father more out of nervous self-assertion than out of malice — and the other murders result from an insane cowardly bravado, masked by the forced delusion of lonely heroism. Throughout, Holly describes the weather and the countryside in the tone of a teenager who, when asked how the accident happened, can only shrug. This feeling of insensitivity is sustained even after the surrender of Kit and Holly to the police. Holly is bound for prison, and Kit is bound for, as he puts it, "the juice." They have grown bored with each other and bored with their little adventure, so they might as well give up. In a rather pointlessly mock-dramatic conclusion, the plane carrying them flies into a golden sunset.

The strength of Badlands is that it is a serious attempt to analyze a very difficult, almost incomprehensible subject. That it is a subject which preoccupies our social life is evidenced by the headlines of the daily press. Whatever we may think, in sober moments, of sensationalism, it sells newspapers and films, because it provides the raw matter of our fantasies and dreams. (In blunt recognition of this fact, Warner Brothers, the distributors of Badlands, are emphasizing in their ad campaign the film's sensational and nostalgic aspects, as a sort of bloody American Graffiti.) But the trouble with such a subject is that, unless it is in the hands of an absolute master (as, for example, Richard Wright in Native Son), it becomes a foredoomed attempt to explain the inexplicable. A defense of the film might be that the intent is to report Kit and Holly's story and not to comment upon it. But reporting is the job of a journalist, not of an artist, and a very vivid, complete, and competent journalism still leaves the newspaper-like gaps of "objectivity" — the proper raw material, but not the proper product, of aesthetic recreation. Malick nearly said as much in his comments after the pre-release showing of the film, when he noted that he has known "a lot of guys like Kit — although none of them did what he did." But that is precisely the problem, none of them did what he did, and Badlands does not succeed in explicating the difference in Kit or in Kit's circumstances that drives him or Holly to their mindless rampage. Beyond a hapless representation of Kit's degrading jobs, and a hopelessly maudlin account of Holly's relations with her father (he shoots her dog as a punishment — a feeble director's gesture against the small, but frankly sympathetic, finely acted role of Warren Oates, whose performance is good enough to dominate the early scenes), the film offers nothing in the way of real explanation of these two pathetic misfits. At one point Holly says Kit told her not to talk about one of the murders, that of Kit's only friend, because to ask themselves why "would only bring bad luck." Badlands, despite a valiant and promising first effort by Malick to overcome intractable material, is forced into the same surrender to the emotionless and vacuous dead end of Holly's narration, as though to offer more, would only bring bad luck.