Hooray, it’s my turn to choose a film—my first ever movie-of-the-week for The Cinessential. Whoops, I chose one from a director whose oeuvre I’m otherwise entirely unfamiliar with. This fact veered into my mind just before I pressed play, as startling as a Cadillac with Kit Carruthers behind the wheel. I haven’t seen The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, The New World, or any of the three films Terrence Malick has released in the past three years. When it comes to him, my knowledge starts and stops at Badlands. So forgive my ignorance of the themes, etc., that appear in his later work; you’ll have to fill in the blanks yourself.
Badlands begins as if in a dream, in a dark room with a pale girl petting a large dog on an old bed. Soon, the girl’s narration sets the scene and the characters, and now it’s as if we’re in a novel. Then we see a hunk bending over a [the?] dog in an alley, looking just like James Dean, and it’s as if we’re watching a film. Which we are, actually.
The girl is Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, and the hunk is Kit, played by Martin Sheen. They are star-crossed lovers who will fall in love, kill her father, hide out in the woods, go on an interstate murder spree, and then break up just before getting cuffed for their crimes. Holly will go on to marry the son of her defense lawyer. Kit will die in the electric chair.
In between, people will repeatedly bite into luscious apples and peaches and throw the remains on the ground; there’ll be random trash that’s noted in conversation; ornamental chairs will be sat upon and busts rearranged; a piano will go up in flames. Twice, Kit will record a message for others to hear, though the first will get incinerated along with the piano. Think about a voice floating away on a turbulent wind and you’ll get a sense of the movie’s essence. It throws the veil of dreams over objects and interiors and lays bare the lush or barren landscapes normally found in dreams. Souvenirs will be buried.
“Twelve noon New Year’s Day Grand Coulee Dam 1964 you meet me there you got that?” Others since Malick have adopted this kind of whimsical, off-the-cuff erudition and the swoony illogic that informs the central relationship onscreen, but I don’t think Wes Anderson or his ilk come close to Malick’s achievement in this regard. We’re taken in by Kit and Holly not because we aspire to be them or inhabit their world, necessarily, but because they act like those parts of ourselves we hide from general view: the parts where we admit we lack personality, perhaps, or buck rebellion and acknowledge the wisdom of our elders, or, much darker, chase the thrill of being a wanted criminal. Kit and Holly become wholly unlike their latter-day indie counterparts, even as their relationship deepens and assumes similarly strange contours, because honesty, with themselves and with each other, is their currency—and there’s nothing glamorous or whimsical about that. Kit and Holly are the real deal.
What of the music, too? That delirious, glorious melody and the haunting choirs that pump life into the film? Like Malick’s characters, Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” piece reverberates in cinema: it, or a similar tune, plays over later films like Ratcatcher, Monster, and True Romance. I have nothing else to say about the music except that it alone makes the case for watching Badlands.
Frankly, I’m not sure what else to say in this Opening Statement, in general. I don’t have a thesis. My thesis is: watch Badlands if you haven’t lately and follow along with the rest of the coverage this week; also, Badlands is a highly influential exemplar of indie cinema and a high-water mark of ‘70s cinema. In turn, it probably owes a debt to Bonnie and Clyde, released six years prior, which I haven’t seen recently enough to make an unequivocal statement on, though I will say that I got confused at the end of Badlands and thought the young deputy was played by Warren Beatty, except he’s really short?, and I thought that would be a fun connection to make in this piece. [It’s not Warren Beatty; I was thrown off by seeing Warren Oates’s name in the opening credits and, well, the kid kind of looks like Warren Beatty.]
Enjoy Badlands. Listen to “Gassenhauer” on YouTube. Ponder the toaster that Kit finds in the pantry. Dream about driving a Cadillac to the mountains. And check out what we have scheduled for the rest of the week:
- A deeper examination of Kit and Holly's romance
- Linking Badlands and Malick's work to philosopher Martin Heidegger
- Related Review of lovers-on-the-run predecessor The Honeymoon Killers
- And more!