Badlands – 1973 – dir, Terrence Malick

In 1972 Terrence Malick ran out of money while editing Badlands, his first feature film, and with no studio backing or distribution deal, he turned back to freelance scriptwriting to drum up the last $35,000 he needed for 10 extra months of postproduction editing and sound rerecording. This was the second cash infusion that Malick personally invested into the feature, having earned about half of the initial funding for principle photography from his stint as a scriptwriter after graduating from the AFI Conservatory in 1969.

That first round of money came partially from his work on Dirty Harry, the brutal Clint Eastwood procedural that introduced America to a San Francisco overturned by the murderous psychopath handled “Scorpio” and, of course, the righteous force of Dirty Harry and his non-service issue .44 magnum. Billy Weber, the associate editor on Badlands, told GQ in 2011 “Terry wrote the very first script of Dirty Harry.” (Also, in other movies-I-wish-existed dreams, Weber reveals that Brando was set to star in that version.)

Scorpio is so evil that he’s beyond humanity (remember when he unapologetically kidnaps, rapes, and buries alive that teenage girl?) but the disenchanted and murderous youths in Badlands were given overflowing humanity. Unlike Harry, Badlands relies on dynamic characters that are scores beyond the easy good-evil of the Scorpio-Harry dichotomy. There is a rich ambiguity of morals in Badlands that makes it hard not to idolize the spree murderer and his adolescent accomplice.  Does Malick want us to fall in love with them even at their worst moments?

First, there is the simple aesthetic of Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), the lovers-turned-outlaws: they are flat-out cool.  Watch Kit put his jean jacket on by twisting it over his head like the blade of a helicopter, watch him calmly reach down and turn on the car radio at the start of a car chase, and watch him stumble slightly in the grass after shooting his friend in the back. Twice during the film other characters say he looks like James Dean, and they are honest: Sheen’s thick auburn hair and savvy smile are as smooth as his hands-in-his-pockets slouch. A white t-shirt and a pair of jeans are icing on the James Dean cake.

Watch Holly jump back giddily when her father flicks paint at her feet, watch her apply makeup to her eyes to “see what it would look like,” and watch her sink into the bucket seat of the Cadillac they steal from the rich man. Spacek’s freckled face is framed in all the youth of her free flowing red locks and punctuated by those smart eyes that she lets drift in daydream.

Then, deeper, there’s a wealth of contradictions and misinterpretations of actions that show how fallible they both are. Kit is a sociopathic liar behind all that charm and Holly is an innocent girl inextricably caught in a love affair she’s too young to understand.

Kit is a cipher who babbles constantly with a mixture of seeming intelligence and everyday know-how. They call him an individual a few times, but it would be more accurate if Raul Duke showed up to say “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production.” He lies to everyone he meets, and not just to stay away from the law. He disguises or contradicts the facts of his situation to make himself seem in control (“I don’t mind getting up early, so I’ve got a job throwing garbage.”). He capitalizes on obvious surroundings to bamboozle people (“You’re the ones with the Studebaker, aren’t you?”). And he uses disingenuous gestures of neighborliness to make those he steals from feel less cheated (“Here’s a list of everything I borrowed. The car is on there too.”).  When the officer grabs hold of him to take him to the police cruiser, he prattles “Hey now, you’re going to give me cauliflower ear.” This is the essential Kit: he talks as if there will be time for everything. When he sees Holly for one of the last times, he apologizes for killing her father and says, “We’re going to have to talk about that someday,” when it’s obvious to everyone that that will never happen.

In the end, Kit is just a lost boy: we never see his parents and he doesn’t have ambition to do anything besides continue with his infantile obsession of Holly. He’s so in love that he doesn’t realize when his love stops being returned. The movie reads like a strange version of Antoine and Collette where Antoine kills her parents and forces her to run away.

A Terrence Malick mainstay that launches in Badlands is a grounding of the narrative in someone’s innocence and then allowing it to slowly drift away.  Think of Pocahontas’ introduction to European culture in The New World. Or Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, who controls the interior of the film with her stutter-laden and soft spoken narration, where she sympathizes with that film’s misanthropes with childlike colloquialisms like “Wasn’t no harm in him. You’d give him a flower, he’d keep it forever.” And Spacek’s Holly isn’t much different: when she is explaining Kit’s murderous behavior to their hostage she says, “sometimes I think something’s wrong with his bean,” as if Kit has forgotten to tie his shoelaces. When she’s walking a young hostage out to her possible demise, she asks if the girl loves her boyfriend.

Badlands becomes an awakening film for Holly. The plotting rarely depends on Spacek’s soft husk of a voice as she calmly discusses the tedium that she is experiencing.  The narration works so seamlessly because it often plays like misdirection with the images on the screen: rather than harp on the brutal acts that Kit is taking in her name, she reflects on each of her whims. And it’s in the narration that we hear how Holly gradually becomes aware of the negativity of Kit’s impulsive violence and his manipulation of her, and how she eventually (after a few downgrades in her opinion of him) arrives to thinking: “I made up my mind never again to hang around with the hell-bent type. No matter how in love with him I was.”

Their romance is over even before the most romantic scene in the movie: their dancing in the moonlit desert within view of Saskatchewan. That wonderful scene is a requiem for them, punctuated perfectly by the lyrics of Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell”: “The dream has ended, for true love died. / The night a blossom fell and touched two lips that lied.”

My favorite treat in Badlands is when Malick himself shows up in a walk-on role of the architect who comes to visit the rich man. In a rare June 1974 Filmmaker’s Newsletter interview he says “I couldn’t find a local actor to play the role, and we didn’t have enough money to fly someone in from Los Angeles,” but the final cut makes it seem more likely that this was a vanity shot for him.  Does this character even need to be in the film? Besides putting Kit and Holly back on their trail from the rich man’s house, he does little to move the plot along or advance the characters. And Malick’s acting? Well, he certainly nails a solid mixture of confused and skeptical looks. I guess you could call him passable, but his lack of comfort is somehow amplified by the incomparable cool that Sheen brings to the scene. The result has all the novelty of a Stan Lee or Hitchcock appearance, but unlike their cameos, Malick lingers just a smidgen too long for us to miss him when he disappears.

And of course all of this is wrapped in picturesque scenery. There are long and natural takes where the actors seem to be improvising their actions. There are nature close-ups, where the camera zooms to examine bugs and plant life. The camera pans into other scenes as if documenting an event that the filmmaker happened upon: the camera sweeps from the side or below, taking time to get to the action. This vérité style is only hinted at here, but will be used heavily in Malick’s future work, which lean more regularly on the documentary style camerawork.

Badlands is a haunting road trip film about first love, rebellion, and patricide. The rampage and destruction are viewed through a loosening veil of wide-eyed puppy love via Holly’s transcendent naiveté. The whole project ignores the axiom that American films descended from Dirty Harry continue to reinforce: that there’s a good and there’s a separate evil. Outside of Harry’s San Francisco, there’s only Badlands.

Andrea O Written by: