Continuing the lift on Malick’s Rarefied Wavelength: two misfits, the nature equation and a sensational debut film
Having aged like fine wine—”Badlands” (1973), Terrence Malick’s perennial encapsulation of 1970’s cinema–re-imagines the Starkweather-Caril Fugate murder spree of 1959 as a road movie with two unknowingly malevolent teenagers at its center in typically beautiful, sometimes confounding, yet always affecting Malick-esque form. The filmmaker’s debut is at once several things: it’s a darkly comedic look at the lives of youth adrift—both physically and psychologically, a frightening and mysterious examination of psychopathy in its infant stage, and, as with all of Malick’s films, a meticulously composed, sublimely photographed commentary on the state of our existential cryptogram.
The preening young misfit Kit (Martin Sheen) does his best imitation of James Dean. Along his garbage route, he speaks in strange, often morbid tones that are just off-kilter enough to rub us the wrong way. “I’ll give you a dollar to eat this collie!” he says at one point. Later in the film, he stretches out haphazardly, boots on the table, the mouthpiece to an analog recorder at his lips, as if he’s profound enough in his observation to fully believe himself: “Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoints of others. Consider the minority opinion. But try to get along with the majority of opinion once it’s accepted.” It’s because of such things that his brash, remorseless actions in the meat of “Badlands” never fully confuses us.
Like all of Malick’s films, “Badlands” is punctuated, and, to a lengthy extent, guided by a voice-over narration that connects essential thematic dots. Our narrator, Holly (Sissy Spacek), is an impressionable 15 year old girl who falls into the fixed gaze of Kit, only to be swept into the undercurrent of unpredictability before she has the chance to second-guess herself. What is to her an endearing and seemingly extravagant tale quickly turns into a meandering nightmare, one that is accentuated from beginning to end by her unshakable innocence; she’s reciting–throughout–a story drastically, even fatally misunderstood. Neither Kit nor Holly fully comprehend the weight that their words seem to carry.
After willingly giving into Kit’s advances, the two set out on a journey of seemingly incalculable consequence; it’s one that takes them from the murdered body of Holly’s sign painter father to the sprawling, flat prairies of the northern plains to the creation of flimsy utopian hideouts, empty promises made and contrived, transparent realities. Kit begins his merciless killing spree shortly after the two hit the road, and a timer is instantly placed on the shelf life of their reckless endeavors, but Malick, as he’s proved time and time again, isn’t concerned–per se–with narrative specifics.
“Badlands”–like every film the director has made since–is enamored by the bigger picture; it’s one that’s populated with his character’s goings-on, but not specifically in tune to their needs. It’s intrigued by how mysterious, intangible –even natural forces–dictate the outcome of its characters advances upon an unpredictable world. The strength of “Badlands” lies in Malick’s overarching and far-reaching impartiality: he never interjects his point of view, electing instead to observe, just as the God he’s so earnestly trying to find would do.
In the world of Terrence Malick, human beings are not at war with the volatile sense of power that nature possesses, rather, they remain powerless in their effort not be controlled by it. Beginning with “Badlands,” through “The Thin Red Line,” “The Tree of Life” and ending (as of now) with “To The Wonder,” Malick’s films maintain fascinating, perpendicular relationships with man and what he does not understand. War and the mysterious, baffling existence of such things are seen equally under the veil of the cosmos in “The Thin Red Line.” In “The Tree of Life,” a young boy grapples with the tug and pull of nature’s making, and in “Badlands,” Holly remains defenseless in her all-consuming situation as it unfolds underneath the great conundrum of it all.
“Badlands”–in a sense–embodies Malick’s worldview in clear-cut and concise fashion. Naturalistic visual interludes, sprawling rumination and an underlying narrative effectively coexist, all while the uniquely philosophical musings of an eternally curious filmmaker permeate the margins. “Badlands” is–for anyone who’s not yet afloat on the director’s rarefied wavelength–a perfect place to begin.