It’s easy to pinpoint nowadays the moment American cinema began to turn things around in terms of themes and subject matters, when filmmakers let loose their anger and frustration at society as a whole with movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider re-inventing the gangster and western genre and adapting it to the times those movies were made in. Those were the years of the Vietnam war, years of unrest and turmoil, psychedelic years of hardship, pain and loss, where the figures of authority turned into oppressive figures of absolute power. Both Bonnie and Clyde are shredded to pieces by the law, and Easy Rider‘s Wyatt and Billy share a similar fate at the hands of locals who did not much care about peace, love and drugs.
When Terrence Malick made his feature debut, Badlands, the year was 1973 and the war in Vietnam was coming to an end with a nation buried in deep mourning and even deeper embarrassment. The filmmaker decided to tell the story of a young couple, much like Bonnie and Clyde, going on a killing spree across South Dakota and Texas. For what? Well, for the hell of it.
Introducing at the time up-and-coming nobodies in Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the film recounts how Holly and Kit, misunderstood by their surroundings, lost in the maze that is small-town America, went looking for meaning with a gun in their hand and a car full of everyday objects including a toaster, a lamp and a record player.
Before Malick started experimenting with abstract, visualized emotions and as a result veering off conventional storytelling most notably in films like The Thin Red Line, The New World and later on in Knight of Cups or Song to Song, he made Badlands. Badlands is told through Holly’s voice-over, as if the young, timid freckled girl were reading her diary to us. Consequently, we already know how the story ends. We already know the story of Kit and Holly is a story of the past, a story that has a beginning and ending, and that there is no way out. We, much like the film’s protagonists, are trapped within the confines of the story itself, like readers bound to the narrative of a novel.
The world that Badlands presents to us is a world without reason. It is a world were a young couple can go on a killing spree without a care in the world, without any intention to do so in the first place. The lack of reason extends to their surroundings as well – Holly’s father, as she tells us in her opening monologue, “kept his wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years” following the death of his wife. The small town of Port Dupree where Kit and Holly meet is a town of strangers – people with little to no interest in each other. A town where anything can happen but nothing ever does.
The father (played by 70s icon Warren Oates) epitomizes the repressed, mournful spirit of a nation. He’s a man whose inability to communicate with his own child costs him his life, whose violent outbursts replace reason and judgement. Ultimately he’s just as trigger-happy as Kit is. He can stare his daughter straight in the eyes and shoot her beloved dog as punishment. This is no It’s a Wonderful Life.
And yet, despite the film exploring what at the time could have been considered modern violence – innocent, pretty-looking kids with a tendency to kill at sight, much like the Manson family – Badlands is a uniquely warm and honest coming-of-age depiction of teenage love. The protagonists find reason in each other, although both have very little to say to each other and at times struggle to understand each other’s actions, this shared inability to communicate with the world is what binds them together.
Holly is scared of Kit, but this fear also comes with an acknowledgment of Kit’s probable dark and painful past. Kit, on the other hand, wants to be like James Dean. He wants to be cool, insists on being liked by others and his violent impulses often come out of nowhere and serve to strengthen his grasp on what people think of him and how they look at him. For a trigger-happy killer, he’s very observant of other’s actions and expressions. This sensitivity and fear of being rejected by society is what makes Kit a sympathetic character. Much in the vein of the French New Wave and New Hollywood, Malick is able to create a warm vision of adolescence despite his characters’ reprehensive and sociopathic behavior.
However, as I mentioned before, the problem is that Kit and Holly are not entirely incompatible with the society they run away from. The society that formed them and now goes after them with rifles, helicopters and squad cars is the same society that worships such behavior, and makes stars out of violent individuals. This renowned celebrity-worship is what ultimately drives Kit to keep pulling the trigger in the hopes that one day he’ll be interviewed on TV, or perhaps have his face on the cover of a national magazine, or better yet, have a movie made based on his life. In a way, Malick critiques and shames the romanticism of movies that often failed to capture the problematic reality of their times, most notably in the 40s and 50s when stories of deranged individuals were turned into stories of hero worship with John Wayne and others like him not recognizing the implications of the characters they were portraying.
In Badlands, Holly’s voice-over narration almost fools us into believing that the actions of these two teenagers carry no repercussions. Yet, ultimately the movie acknowledges this and turns the tables around on us and the characters themselves as they come to a crossroads where they have to make a choice: Holly must choose whether to keep tagging along with Kit and pretending to be part of his little game, and Kit must reckon with his own impulses and obsessions and make a decision based on his feelings toward Holly. For once, he must make a choice that is not only about him.
Malick’s observant eye for nature, human bodies and the moments of calm right before the storm, serves to further emphasize just how lonely it is to be trapped with one’s own questions about the world. Kit, despite coming across as cocky, arrogant and yes, quite violent, is very much preoccupied with his place in the world, and with the legacy that one leaves behind. Similarly, Holly – who might come off as the usual shy female companion – is an incredibly powerful presence in people’s lives. Her eyes, and her ability to keep quiet despite knowing full well where things are headed make of her an ominous force. She knows when the end is near, just like she knows when to stop believing Kit’s bullshit and hop off just in time to watch him get himself caught. But ultimately, Badlands is about confronting us with images and stories that have no straight answers because life doesn’t give you straight answers. Life is not like the movies, that’s what everybody keeps saying, right?
When Kit gets himself arrested, the cops ask him, “Do you like people?” To which he replies, “They’re OK.” So they ask him, “Then why’d you do it?” And Kit shrugs and says, “I don’t know. I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess. Just not this big a one.”