Badlands (1973)

Dir. Terrence Malick. Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri

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I’m not sure I’ve ever reacted to the end of a movie before like I did with Badlands; I’ve never been given a clearer, more concrete grip on character motivation and thought it obliterated the movie’s feel. (The last movie I saw to give me a spelled-out character motivation which just made the movie worse as a whole was Wonder Woman, which places it in a very long line of movies with likeminded twists.) It’s the end of the road for Kit (Sheen), even though it doesn’t have to be. He has executed a right-angle turn in his giant stolen Cadillac, fins and all, while the cops behind him failed to hit the turn correctly and turned on their side for a brief moment. He has his opening. He’s just gotten more gas in the car. He might conceivably run longer, but inexplicably – at the moment, and even to Spacek’s Holly in her narration – he stops. He blamed a flat tire, we hear her say, but I don’t think that was it. A few seconds later he shoots out his front left. He begins to gather rocks and creates a little pile of them, stacked neatly enough to show that it was made by man. Our understanding of the pile is delayed a few seconds, just like the flat tire line, until he tells the cops that spot was where he was arrested. It’s not the first time that he’s used rocks as a memorial object, although the first time out was funnier and more effective. When he and Holly have sex for the first time back in South Dakota, long before he killed her father (Warren Oates), he picks up a giant rock and suggests smashing their hands with it to commemorate the moment. (He later grabs a different rock as a keepsake; the first one, he says, was too heavy to carry around.) In the last night of their freedom, Kit stops the car to dance to a Nat King Cole song in the headlights with Holly. If he could sing what he was feeling, Kit says as they sway, he’d have a real hit on his hands. That line is the one which carries us home. In the last few minutes of the film, as he tosses items out of his pockets as souvenirs for the National Guard, as he banters with every law enforcement officer he comes across, he seems mostly concerned with being the late ’50s, all-killin’ Clyde Barrow without the bullet-ridden car. Before that, the movie is just about perfect.

Sheen plays Kit the whole movie as a more serious version of that Clyde Barrow archetype. Warren Beatty was good for the role, but it doesn’t matter who he’s playing: he simply looks and sounds like a guy whose next words are going to be a filthy joke, albeit not a very well-told one. He dances to “Love is Strange” with Spacek in one of the brief non-vista sequences which I think stand out most in the movie, and the dancing tells the whole story. Spacek has her arms out and is moving her hands back and forth, her feet moving in a prescribed set of steps. Sheen has his hands in his back pockets, strutting a little. The hair on top of his head bobs a little, like he’s the rooster running into a hen in the barnyard. She’s a little stiff; he’s rigid. It’s the same rigidity he has in his body not long before, when he is running around shirtless and carrying a gun out in front of him. Even his first encounter with Holly doesn’t make him look any more loose; he walks in the middle of the road with her and his arms are still very much a pair of hard angles. He may look like James Dean to Holly, but Kit is like Dean in a back brace. Spacek’s hair and her oversized clothes give her a sort of fluidity that’s totally missing in Kit’s body language throughout the vast majority of the picture. Sheen is serious here, and his seriousness inflects the impassive aura Spacek projects.

Between Kit’s inflexibility and Spacek’s apathy, they make an unusual couple. As a pair, one cannot imagine the two of them being physically intimate in any real way. We don’t see them having sex. Their kisses are stiff, like a nightmare from junior high. Malick frequently shoots one without the other, or puts them far apart from one another in the same shot; sometimes they don’t make eye contact even when they’re with each other. Kit sleeps closer to his handgun than he does to his girl. There is something romantic about what the two of them are doing in living separate from the rest of the world, completely wrapped up one in the other. But the movie does not pretend there’s anything sexy about their loneliness, or solitude, which is the word that Kit tells Holly she’s looking for. Towards the end of the movie, Holly begins to want a decent bath and real food again; there’s no evidence that she’s slept in bed since the night before Kit burned her house down and took her bed with it. It’s a symbolic scene. The flames burn beautifully; it’s the Moonlight Sonata of burned down houses for sure. But it doesn’t leave much to rebuild with. Kit and Holly lose urgency when they get out on the road away from her father’s corpse and her smoldering house. For the film, it works wonderfully; for the two of them, it seems to sap away their libidos. I feel like I could have watched them hide away and drive away for hours, far longer than the ninety-odd minute length of the movie itself.

The electricity in Badlands shorts once Holly gets in the helicopter, turning herself in to one cop while others in a squad car take up the chase for Kit. Spacek is playing a girl of fifteen, and while I knew she wasn’t really fifteen, I checked to make sure that she was at least legal during the movie. (Spacek was twenty-three during the shoot.) Like a silent movie relies on faces, so too does Badlands need her giant eyes, her pale but present freckles, the flowing red hair that inspires an occasional “Hey, Red!” from Kit, and the guileless, blank expression she wears just about all the time. The film does not wonder too much about why she runs away with the man who killed her father, a shiftless sort ten years her senior without prospects. She knows he’s never going to find a real job again, and she tells him so. Two of her voiceovers mention future beaux, even future spouses, with a tone of likelihood and not possibility. She’s more obviously stricken by the killing of her dog than the killing of her father. The widest her eyes ever get are in extreme close-up after she’s done some wild work on them with eyeliner. Holly is so interesting because she is the representation of what it would be to completely give up control over one’s own life. Kit dictates where they go and what they do once they get there. He does all the shooting and killing. Holly notices a spider in a jar, mentions how lovely a wealthy man’s house is to him (while Kit is, essentially, holding him up), sits in the front seat, looks through a stereopticon. She’s no fool. Her observations are poetic and rich, almost painfully lovely. Her description of living in the forest with Kit mixes the details of his fortress and his training with the details of bird sounds and types of plants. Combined with Malick’s gift for photography, these are probably the best moments of the movie. Holly is also just about the only person with even the inkling of humor in the movie. Aside from a joke she tells, I was tickled by her father’s move to put her through more music lessons. She recounts dryly: “He said that if the piano didn’t keep me off the streets, maybe the clarinet would.” This is a common element of her narration, to recount the words of others. She is the Faulkner to Kit’s Darl Bundren; she gives him the words that he cannot possibly have and which no one else ever witnesses.

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