(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1973)
From the very beginning, Terrence Malick was poised to be different. He’s often justifiably lumped in with the other daring new talents on the American film scene during the 1970s – a “movement” that would come to be known as New Hollywood sparked by Arthur Penn’s influential Bonnie and Clyde – and yet his debut feature Badlands suggested a wholly singular approach altogether. Of course, with greats Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life behind us, it’s easy to see where Malick was headed with his debut. Its tale of two forbidden young lovers on a road trip killing spree offers somewhat of an alternate take on the Bonnie and Clyde story, and yet Malick uses the realist techniques of this period to highlight the beauty in nature, not grittiness; sheds light on the reality of violence, but it’s never grisly; and chronicles the downfall of the increasingly popular antihero, but it’s neither tragedy nor social commentary.
Badlands, then, plays like a work of Malick’s pupating signature aesthetic that would come fully into itself with Days of Heaven five years later. It’s his first and last conventional film before he became entrenched in the metaphysical and the power of image and sound over plot. But, Badlands is no lightweight compared to its grander, arguably better, successors. It’s certainly a work of an artist with a fresh and seemingly rare view of the world. Where many of his American contemporaries looked around the post-counterculture landscape and only saw ugliness, Malick witnessed glimpses of beauty. “I thought what a fine place it was,” impressionable, young Holly (Sissy Spacek) says of this world. She may very well be speaking for Malick himself.
Though later films would explore this to a much greater extent, Badlands finds Malick at the intersection between humankind and nature. To escape the rigid strictures of society keeping them apart, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly retreat into the wilderness together. Kit teaches Holly how to live off the land, and Malick allows the camera to linger on close-ups of the forest teeming with life. The pair is forced to abandon their refuge in the woods, but not because of any inability for human and nature to coexist peacefully – something Malick would go on to explore further in The New World – but because of other outside human forces. Many films have documented the harsh reality of the wild and man’s inability to thrive there, but, crucially, Badlands makes no such claim and posits humankind as its own adversary.
Malick’s primary concern, then, becomes the mythologizing of the outlaw. In this way, it’s a perfect fit amongst its New Hollywood contemporaries, but it’s also more compelling than the more famous works of Penn, Peckinpah, and Hopper. Kit is a rebel in the vein of Clyde Barrow, Pike Bishop, or “Captain America” and Billy, but the story is not told from his perspective. From the film’s opening scene, Malick posits teenage Holly as the film’s primary voice through an unprecedented ongoing use of voiceover narration. We first see Kit through the lens of Holly’s naiveté as she repeatedly gives him the benefit of the doubt and then through a new lens as she comes to see his destructive ways for what they are. “Goes to show how you can know a person and not know a person at the same time,” she intones. Badlands, then, is the story of this loss of innocence.
Malick expertly captures this notion throughout with the bouncy, childlike composition “Gassenhauser” by Carl Orff and the diary-like quality the film’s narrative follows. Each encounter and subsequent murder reads like a new entry as Holly slowly realizes the mental and emotional instability of her lover. In one telling sequence, Kit burns down Holly’s home to destroy the evidence of his first murder, and we watch as the totems of her childhood – dolls, toys, instruments – become engulfed in flames. There’s no turning back for her after this, and both Holly and Kit know it.
Malick spends the final moments of the film with Kit alone, separated from Holly who’s given herself up. Holly’s voiceover reveals that Kit knows his resistance is futile, but resist he does nonetheless. The police officers and soldiers tasked with this statewide manhunt engage Kit in the most unexpected of ways. Once arrested, he’s treated like a hero of sorts. He’s likened to James Dean (for the second time in the film). It’s as if Malick’s held a mirror up for his audience to look in. We’ve seen the death and destruction Kit has wrought, and yet we’re undeniably fascinated by him. Fortunately, even as the two are reunited in handcuffs heading back to South Dakota, Holly reveals what happens next. Kit is tried and executed for his crimes, and Holly is pardoned. She never tries to go back to him for she knows that their days of feigned idyll are over. There’s no turning back now. The same is true for the film’s creator. Badlands set in motion one of the most accomplished and revered careers in recent filmmaking history. It’s an essential work of Malick’s and one that deserves revisiting time and again even after he’s come so far.