Badlands: Peering into the mind of Terence Malick

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Terence Malick has become something of a lightning rod among film fans over the last few years.

It all started in 2011 when the highly-reclusive Malick directed The Tree of Life, and then won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for it. The Tree of Life was vintage Malick: a slow, meandering journey across a landscape of existentialist, quasi-religious, ‘what-is-the meaning-of-life’ themes. There were farm landscapes. There was family strife. There were beautiful, mesmerizing shots of waterfalls. There were dinosaurs.

I hated it.

I wasn’t alone. When The Tree of Life was announced as the winner at Cannes, there were boos and cheers from the crowd in about equal proportion. It’s very rare that a film is able to split lots of like-minded film lovers in this way. It’s like turning a bunch of relaxed, non-political friends into a bunch of frothing Democrats and Republicans in the blink of an eye, complete with inane arguments and highly-convincing propaganda. If nothing else, Malick had accomplished something unique: he created emotion where few filmmakers can. Perhaps he deserved the Palme d’Or for that alone.

I didn’t enjoy The Tree of Life at all. I felt like it was a filmmaker taking a pee on the idea of being a filmmaker. To me, it was a man making a film about nothing, and then silently laughing to himself when people actually liked it. It seemed like film critic’s bait: a delicious looking worm sitting on a hook, waiting to be eaten by some unsuspecting bass. Now I’ve got them.

But perhaps my problem was that this was my first Malick film. His more recent films, namely The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), received similar analysis to The Tree of Life: slow, existentialist, deep in meaning. But his two earlier films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) have been analyzed differently: more easy to comprehend, more down to Earth. And so it was that I found myself at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA a few weeks ago, watching Badlands.

Badlands has always been a film I’ve wanted to see. It was Malick’s film debut, and it starred a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as two lovers traveling across the country in the 1950s, murdering people as they went. Quentin Tarantino has cited it as one of his all-time favorite films, and even if Tarantino isn’t my favorite director (though I like him), I try to watch all the films he recommends. Cause Dude loves movies.

Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen), a fired trash collector, and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a fifteen year old girl, as they travel the countryside on the run from the law. Things start out innocently enough; they fall in love. But as often happens in life, shit gets in the way. When Holly’s overprotective father (Warren Oates) confronts Kit, Kit buys a gun. Again, it is an innocent start; the violence is initiated by the father, who murders Holly’s dog in response to her relationship. But things spiral to tragedy; the gun is fired; the bullet does its damage; and Kit and Holly have no choice but to go on the run.

There are many themes visited during Kit’s and Holly’s journey from both the law and society. Love, hatred, the law, and fear are some of the obvious ones. But nothing with Malick is ever obvious. One needs to look beyond the murders and mayhem to see the real themes to think about: Life; Death; Society; Human Nature; The Difference Between Good and Evil.

Malick, reclusive as he may be, has talked about this film a little bit. He stated that we’re supposed to note how the power of a gun changes Kit; how the ease of killing someone with a gun can sometimes fix a problem more effectively than simply fixing it. These are important issues that humans should take note of; they are the roots of genocide. Just a few years after this film was released, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, and they would follow a philosophy similar to what we can assume Kit was thinking: you might not hurt me alive, but you definitely won’t hurt me dead, so it’s time for you to die.

This film is a poignant and fulfilling look into the human psyche. It shows us how good intentions can be manipulated by weapons and human laziness; how even if we’re good, we’re really actually bad. Everything comes full circle when Kit is captured; he’s suddenly a good ole’ boy, getting slaps on the back from the country cops as he heads to the electric chair.

I think it’s safe to say that this was Terence Malick on a leash. People have described Malick as a secretive genius who is difficult to understand; I would agree. In some ways, Malick is not of this world. But in Badlands we see a restrained Malick: the themes that he loves to play with are there, and his movie is deep. But it is also grounded. There is a story to watch and follow, and not only that, but it is enjoyable to watch. Perhaps Malick doesn’t really want us to enjoy his films; he wants us to digest them, think about them, watch them over and over again and obsess about them. But as a young director in 1973, he was forced to give us something more easy to digest. And the result is quite possibly the best film he ever directed.

Of course, I can’t know for sure. It’s time for me to eat my vegetables.

It’s impossible to say how many directors have been influenced by Badlands, as the examples are probably countless, but there are a few examples that are impossible to ignore. Most prominent and obvious is True Romance, a film that Quentin Tarantino wrote, but did not direct, in 1993. In typical Tarantino style, the structure and plot of his screenplay follows the storyline of Badlands almost to a tee. A man and a woman fall in love, get in trouble with gangsters, and go on a similar romp across America. True Romance can be interpreted as a pretty straight forward re-make of Badlands.

The Coen Brothers directed Fargo (1996) a few years later and also paid homage in a heavy way to Badlands. But instead of resurrecting the skin and bones of the plot and putting them back together, as Tarantino did, they focused on smaller themes and scenes. Some scenes are re-shot in Fargo in almost the same exact way that Malick shot them in Badlands. One scene in particular is seemingly plucked from Badlands and incorporated into Fargo over twenty years later. The plot, motives and characters are very different in each film, but the feel and intensity of the films are almost identical. In a completely different way, the Coen Brothers also constructed a re-make of Badlands.

Finally, we come to Natural Born Killers, the dark comedy directed by Oliver Stone in 1994. The original story was written by Tarantino (hmmm…), but heavily re-written by Stone and Dave Veloz. It is an absurdist, surreal and grotesque look at American society, and perhaps human society in general. This film, unlike the two already mentioned, focuses on the celebrity aspect of serial killers, which Malick addresses at the end of Badlands. Make no mistake; Badlands is also a surreal, absurdist film, following the lives of people living in some deranged fairy tale. But we don’t find that out until the end. We don’t find out until suddenly an arrested Kit is transformed into some kind of hero to be celebrated; it’s then that the movie officially becomes a work of Postmodernist Art.

Natural Born Killers basically makes a two hour movie out of the ideas that Malick presents for us in the last 15 minutes of his film. It’s an acquired taste; I find Natural Born Killers to be un-enjoyable and revolting. But it’s a film of note, and it’s another big one that is obviously and heavily influenced by Badlands.

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