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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Badlands



 BADLANDS (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Terrence Malick, 1973 (Criterion Collection)

I. Heartland

The late 1960s and early 1970s, in America, were hard times of  violence and  loneliness, war and craziness and wild beauty—and we see a portrait of a lot of that trauma, in microcosm, in Terrence Malick‘s shattering 1973 classic (which takes place in the 1950s), Badlands. Set in  the badlands of the American West—in the lovely, empty-looking desolation of states like Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota—it’s the story of two young people on the run: Kit, a manchild in his 20s in T-shirt and jeans, who works on the trash truck and tries to model himself after James Dean , and Holly, a girlchild who’s just 15, a high school baton twirler with a strange blank stare, who thinks Kit is the handsomest boy she’s ever seen.

These two moonchildren run off together after Kit tries and fails to reconcile Holly’s mean, smiley sign-painter father (Warren Oates) to their relationship, and then, plumb out of arguments, just shoots him dead and burns his house down. It’s probably Kit’s first murder; he’s such a weirdly polite young man that it’s hard to envision it otherwise. But soon he develops a taste for slaughter and he and Holly have embarked on a savage cross-country trek by stolen cars, one that includes the massacre of many people, including Kit’s best (only) friend Cato (Ramon Bieri). Soon Kit seems to be killing not out of need or fear, but out of some perverse pleasure he gets out of pulling the trigger and making a soul disappear from a body. “He was the most trigger-happy person I’d ever seen,” Holly finally concludes as she narrates the story to us in her flat, unemotional voice. Trigger-happy is the right word.

Kit and Holly—played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, in the first lead roles for either of them—are a couple of beautiful but amoral (at least in Kit’s case) American eccentrics who seem to have gotten most of their ideas about love and romance and beauty from the movies, or from pulp magazines or TV. Sheen makes Kit an outwardly gentle but inwardly savage killer: Spacek makes Holly, who tells their story, a seemingly dazed teenage romantic. Both rarely give a full smile. Kit, who burned down Holly’s home after he shot her father, and threw some belongings in the pyre, likes to steal or pick up, or bury mementoes or send them sailing off on a balloon. Why? To prove he was there? Maybe. He keeps constructing his own dream world, even as the real world is falling apart below their feet, even as the cars race from site to site, death to death. They build paradisiacal tree houses, dance to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” and then—when fate is closing in, they dance to Nat King Cole’s achingly romantic ballad “A Blossom Fell”—in the night, on the road, by the lights of their stolen car. “You’re really something,“ Holly’s father tells Kit—smiling—before Kit kills him. He really is.

Kit and Holly were inspired, to a degree, by real people: serial killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, who embarked on just such a murder spree in 1957-58, and wound up killing eleven people, some of them with a cruelty that surpasses anything we see in Malick‘s movie. The real Charles Starkweather—whom we can see in the Bill Kurtis “American Justice” TV segment included on the excellent Criterion release of Badland—was a cold-hearted bastard and vicious, if photogenic, psychopath who killed people because he was a thief and it was easy, and who betrayed Caril Ann in the end, trying to pin his crimes on her. He had no redeeming characteristics that you could notice.

II. Movieland

Badlands was also inspired by the 1967 masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, by Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, David Newman and Warren BeattyPenn gets a “thank you” in the credits—another movie where unsavory real-life characters, the Clyde Barrow-Bonnie Parker gang, become attractive and sympathetic. Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde are  both films that, to some degree, glamorize criminals (or characters based on criminals) who, in real life,  did very bad things—which is one of the reasons Bonnie and Clyde got such vehement attacks from some reviewers on its first release.

What really disturbed, and disturbs, some people about both these films are  the ways that Malick and Penn make their deadly protagonists beautiful—make us like them, even get crushes on them. All four pretty miscreants—Bonnie, Clyde, Kit, Holly—are stunningly attractive, which gives them all the classic movie short cut to sympathy, something we also see in other “Bonnie and Clyde“-inspired films like Gun Crazy. But they’re also almost cripplingly naïve and childlike—and that’s why we tend to like all of them, right up to the very last moments of their stories.

There’s something else that Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde share: a true, piercing sense of the rough-hewn beauty of the American landscapes and of the American physiognomy. And while Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have movie-star knockout looks—the kind of faces moviemakers use to sell us the movies, and what the movie themselves sell—Sheen and Spacek have a different kind of good looks: an outsider sexiness, a moonchild charm. There’s something tender and beguiling about them both. Spacek‘s Holly, just a girl really, has a face that’s pale, quiet and dusted with freckles. Sheen’s Kit is a polite narcissist who fusses with his hair and has a bemused half-grin that he drops into the air and lets skip, like a flat rock spreading ripples in a still pond. He’s also a maniac, which Holly eventually discovers, but a seemingly sweet one, for whom shooting people becomes a kind of art form, splatter painting.

Both movies, made in the Vietnam era, are about the struggle between the establishment and its outlaws, and both deliberately blur the boundaries between what we see as good and evil. We like the Penn movie’s people, Bonnie and Clyde, and Buck and C. W., and even Blanche, and they’re funnier than Kit. But Clyde is more of a businessman who’s chosen crime as a profession,. Kit is a born killer—maybe even natural-born—and I think we’re probably more afraid of  him than any of the jolly Barrow gang. We should be.

Badlands’ two lead actors are beautiful, and so is the film: a series of stunning landscapes out of Wyeth or Hopper or John Ford, images that can fill us with delight and awe—as when one of Kit’s stolen cars races along the road, pouring out smoke or silhouetted against the sky. In his next film, Days of Heaven, Malick would also get incredible beauty in exterior shots, thanks in large part to two great cinematographers, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. (Badlands went through three camera artists: Tak Fujimoto, Brian Probyn and finally, Stevan Larner.) But if Days of Heaven has perfection and astonishing visual poetry in its Texas panhandle scenes (actually shot in Calgary), Badlands,  which was shot all over many locations, on a minuscule budget—in what Malick has called an essentially outlaw production—has something madder, freer. It’s a darkening vision of two naïve kids in love and flight, but it’s also the head shot of a killer, picking out his targets.

Charles Starkweather was an evil, damned  creature. But, in the end, Kit—the killer dreamed up by a poet and his painters—may be just as frightening. He’s the evil that gets close to you, who’s there, smiling, with a gun in his hand, almost before you know it.

III. Badlands

When you remember Badlands, you remember the landscapes, and Kit and Holly — and Warren Oates and his mean smile. But you also remember the music and the apposite spell it casts: especially Carl Orff’s and Gunild Keetman’s “Gassenhauer”  with its tinkling barebones sound, and Erik Satie’s spare, haunting piano piece “Trois Mourceaux en Forme de Poire,” and “Love is Strange“ and “A Blossom Fell.” (The original music is by George Tipton.) These pieces create a much different mood than the furious, fast-fingered Earl Scruggs banjo-picking  hit, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the accompaniment of Bonnie and Clyde’s bank robbery.

The Barrow gang might have heard someone like Scruggs, playing something like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” somewhere. But Kit and Holly would never have heard music with the sophisticated playfulness, or melancholy or European classic status of Orff or Satie. This is Malick’s chosen music and his comment on this invented couple whom he loves, despite the danger and death in their wake. The question Badlands poses, like Bonnie and Clyde, is the riddle of which is more deadly: society or its outlaws. We  think we know the answer, but we don’t.

When I first saw Badlands, on its first release, in 1973, I thought it was good, but not as good as Bonnie and Clyde, which I loved. (It’s always been one of my favorite movies.) Now I feel that both pictures are on a level, both are classics, and Badlands may even be the more original of the two. But maybe that’s because Penn only made one more masterpiece, Little Big Man, while Malick has made several—Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Penn gradually fell silent, not voluntarily, while Malick chose to be silent for twenty years after Days of Heaven and now, toward the end of his career, has become more prolific and active, while still controversial—winning the Cannes Palme d’Or for Tree of Life, and made more films since. But he’s  never done a movie more poetic. more gorgeous than Badlands or Days of Heaven. Tender and violent, stunning and terrifying, Badlands is about the America and the people we think we know but really don’t, the people we never understand but only hear about from afar. It’s about  that car racing along the road against the sky, that gun pealing out its message of death, those twisted childlike lovers, looking for freedom and finding a whirlpool of murder, and, at the end of all things, Nat King Cole’s creamy, flawlessly shaped and carressing voice singing his hit from the car radio, “A Blossom Fell.”

Extras: Documentary, Making “Badlands,” (2013), with interviews with Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and art director Jack Fisk; Interviews with editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman; “Charles Starkweather” (1993), an American Justice TV episode with Bill Kurtis; Trailer; Booklet with first-rate essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs: Badlands”

  1. Paul says:

    Great review, Mike! As you note, it is disturbing how the protagonists’ violence arises out of their apparent calm. I guess these films in some way mirror our society, which overall is miraculously peaceful, but at the same time is constantly erupting into local acts of violence. And after all, Hitler was reportedly a charming man to his friends!

  2. Walter says:

    Badlands is my all-time favorite movie, followed closely by Bonnie and Clyde. When I started reading this review I wasn’t expecting you to write about both of them! I never tire of either, no matter how many times I see them.


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