Some Stuff to Say: Reviewing Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973)

A shot from Terrence Malick's "Badlands", as Martin Sheen smokes a cigarette in a white t-shirt.

A moment that stays with me in Terrence Malick’s Badlands occurs near the end of Kit and Holly’s flight from authorities through South Dakota up into the US-Canada border. There is a lull both in their pursuit and in their relationship, which so far has been one of passive submission by Holly to Kit’s cold-blooded murder spree.

Holly has concluded that she is done with Kit, for their destination in the far north, even if arrived at, would be fruitless. He knows seemingly nothing except to charm and kill. Her future thus vouchsafed by refusal of him, she tells Kit this on their night drive (or so she tells us, in her narration) and he responds as the audience has been primed to expect him to respond: with almost nonchalant indifference. His protests, in another man’s voice, might be strained by discordant rage; another man’s eyes might gleam with thoughts of loss. His, however, betray no such passions. He catalogs his prospects, but Holly isn’t really listening (although a part of her is). Kit’s acknowledgment of her inattention is blithe.

Then Nat “King” Cole croons through the car radio. Kit swats Holly’s hand away from the dial and soon they are out of the car, and swaying in each other’s arms in the haze of headlights. “A Blossom Fell” moves through Kit’s contemplation of what could be, were it not for the world as it is. Holly’s face betrays no passions.

When I first saw the film, in college, I was very taken by what seemed to me to be great romance. Here, the two doomed lovers pause at the collapse of their union and, after all the bloodshed and muted emotion, experience a genuine moment of connection, however melancholy. Perhaps I was too enthralled by the song (for it is a lovely one) and the image of the pair slow-dancing in their improvised spotlight to notice Holly’s almost confused expression. Or their stiffness, Kit’s unpracticed, nigh-robotic, lead lending no smoothness to the body he puppeteers across the dirt.

But what’s really happening in this moment is only the image of romance. Kit’s image, really, as Holly matters only so much as she is the willing mold upon which he can stamp the shape of his power. “Boy, if I could sing a song like that. If I could sing a song about the way I feel right now…it’d be a hit.” Even in the guise of tenderness he vies for great repute.

And this is no break in the prior proceedings, but, rather, simply another sequence in the pattern set out from the beginning, albeit now lent a crooner’s velvet tones to sweeten the irony. For Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis, as from the beginning, are hardly real people, and seem to exist as figures compelled by forces outside of their control, even if those forces seem to act from within. Kit, in his demented version of a masculinity rite, by turns recycles homespun platitudes and slaughters innocents; styles himself as James Dean against a bare horizon. There is a clear desire for influence, to “make his mark” on the world. That it must come from out the barrel of a gun is a far from uncommon tactic. But no agon accompanies this choice and his very first kill (in the film, at least), Holly’s father, is so easily dispensed, and so easily tossed aside, that the viewer must realize that no guilt lives in Kit because he seems to possess no, or very little, soul to begin with. The context that he is a Korean War veteran (revealed in a line of excellent subtlety) might rationalize his behavior, but it should also chill.

And Holly? There seems to be something stunted there. Something waifish, girlish to a fault, wrapped in the assumption of innocence to what occurs around her. Her father, a sign painter, is protective enough of her that, when he discovers she’s been spending time with Kit (who is a garbage collector when he meets Holly), he kills the family dog as punishment. When Kit murders her father, all he receives from Holly is a quick slap on the forehead, as if he’d let slip an uncouth phrase rather than gun down her only living parent. What tears the fifteen-year-old has to spare are brief before the pair are on the run, as she is more willing to submit herself to Kit’s schemes than bring him to justice.

Why are Kit and Holly so detached from their own—from any—emotion? They certainly experience them, but all emotion that might distract from that single-minded drive to evade authorities and escape north-ward are given short-shrift. The only time Kit explodes is when Holly finally deviates from the mission in the end, letting officers whisk her away in a helicopter. Not even when he murders does he display as much petulant rage as when Holly abandons their flight, exposing him as the man-child he’s always been.

I’ve heard it said by some of Badlands that the film exists as a mere lead-up to the run of cinematic greatness Malick would unfurl beginning with Days of Heaven on to (for the most part) The Tree of Life. It’s not a wholly inaccurate claim, as certainly much in the 1973 film, on a sheer technical level, is prefigurative of that splendorous run: use of voice-over, shots of nature/the miscellany of seemingly random objects, the choice of classical music for soundtrack, his fruitful collaboration with art director Jack Fisk, etc. But Badlands is more than mere exercise: it’s a strong film in its own right, with a coherent (if aloof) view of its characters, themes, and visual messaging. There’s no doubt of the lack of profundity when held against The Thin Red Line or The New World, or that the lines would reach a greater poetic height in Days of Heaven, but Badlands suffers from comparison more so to those great films in his own oeuvre, rather than from the majority of those made by lesser creators. It clearly has, like Kit drawls in his fateful meeting with Holly, “some stuff to say.”

It certainly stands apart from the other films of that era, especially amongst the varied spawn of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. It’s an odd film, focusing on two oddballs (to put it lightly), but there is a studied rigor, a serenity distinct from America’s grittier cinematic outbursts of the seventies. It resists the potential sensationalism of its real-life inspiration (the infamous Starkweather/Fugate case) and even avoids intense psychological investigation of the protagonists. The only potential glimpse we get into Kit’s mind is an early dream-scene where he lies in bed, eyes glazed over, with a dying catfish beside him on the nightstand. Holly, in her voice-over, explains that sometimes he dreams of her coming to him in a white robe. That’s it, really, other than Holly’s matter-of-fact narration of the goings-on.

Various scholars have written extensively on the merits of Badlands, as well as the influence of Malick’s prior philosophical work in the academy on its themes/presentation. References to Heidegger heartily abound if you’re into that sort of thing. Some of it is insightful, and revelatory of the film’s curious detachment, both diegetically and extra-diegetically (how the film corresponds with, and comments upon, the societal alienation of its era). Here are James Morrison and Thomas Schur in their seminal The Films of Terrence Malick:

If Kit and Holly are not narcissists in any salient or clinical sense—and the film is about as interested in traditional psychological explanations as Heidegger was—they might as well be, for it is the outer world of objects, more than any domain of subjects, that is out of joint in Badlands. Kit and Holly are adrift in a world of objects, and from the beginning, the film asks us to pay close attention to how the relations among the characters are mediated by their own relation to objects, which is, from the start, defined in terms of aggression.

Yes, and for Kit, even people are reduced to their objectified relevance (as objectified as firearms and automobiles) to his quest for infamy. And Kit, for Holly, is seen merely as a dominating agent that transports her from one vista to the next, until the going gets too tough, and she very pragmatically detaches. And what about love? Even that is muted: their early consummation is most characterized by mutual disappointment, and the Nat “King” Cole dance-scene’s potential romance is, again, stilted, dulled. This world, for these characters, possesses none of the sacred qualities that other characters in other Malick films ardently seek after; perhaps necessarily so, what with the body count the pair accrues before Kit gets the electric chair and Holly marries the son of the attorney who defends her in court.

But for all these points, Badlands does, I’d argue, fall short of the greatness Malick would achieve later on. Its subtleties, and occasional imagistic power (the wide shots of the titanic Western landscape awe, and dwarf the human subjects in frame) certainly impress. There is, however, nothing all that spectacular about the writing, as Kit and Holly seem only capable of parroting cliches (which is in part intentional, of course, but never totally subverted), and as characters, their flatness might lead some to think of them as ciphers, but they pass as such only because what they are, they are on the surface, totally, with very little actual depth to plumb.

There are very good moments, though: the aforementioned dance scene, for one, as well as an episode with a wealthy homeowner and his deaf maid that humorously exposes all of Kit and Holly’s pretensions (with a nice little Malick cameo for good measure). There are even moments of pulpy excitement, especially as it relates to Kit’s violence: the tense editing during his murder of Holly’s father; his slaughter of bounty hunters; the polished choreography of the final car chase. For a first feature, it contains little to none of the telltale excesses of a young man’s debut—excesses, funnily enough, that would show up in his more recent work as an elderly man. Perhaps his early stint in academia helped in this regard.

I hesitate, however, on the matter of the two protagonists: I don’t have to try very hard to imagine people such as them existing in the real world, but there’s something a little too quirky, a little too detached, about them that I feel they lean more towards artifice than actual. (All credit, though, to Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek for the quality performances.) The points Malick makes through them (as enumerated by scholars such as Morrison and Schur) are well taken, especially as they relate to societal alienation, and it is partly to his credit that he resists a strong diagnosis of Kit and Holly’s brokenness, but this tension between character and “philosophy,” for lack of a better word, is nowhere to be found in the later great films. Perhaps the rather lurid “source material” of the Starkweather/Fugate killing spree, and the film’s admitted debt to Bonnie and Clyde, did not help in this regard.

I don’t mean to turn viewers away from the film by saying this. Badlands is a strong debut work from one of world cinema’s most influential creators. The techniques attempted in the first feature would, again, find even greater fulfillment in Days of Heaven, where Malick would peel away from his many influences and craft something more indicative of his native genius. I found it to be even better on a rewatch, inflected with a kind of wry irony that I hadn’t the access to as a fledgling filmgoer in university. I was still caught up in images, rather than their import. At that point, of Malick’s filmography, I’d watched only The Tree of Life, which had successfully entranced me into the notion of a serious cinema. A daring work of far greater ambition (paired with the relentlessly roving camera of Emmanuel Lubezki) like that perhaps rendered me insensitive to the humbler aims of Badlands. I’d viewed it more as a road-romance gone wrong, and not a trained philosopher’s preliminary stretching into artistry with a visual medium. He had some stuff to say here, to be sure, but even more would be said later on in the following decades.

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More from Ezekiel Yu: Vanishing Act: Review of Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998), Child Be Strange: On Alan Clarke’s “Penda’s Fen” (1974)Flames Against Indifference: On John Ashbery’s “Illustration”

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