The result of Badlands is what all artistic filmmakers should strive for. It is not only an incredibly stunning debut by director/writer/producer Terrence Malick and actor Martin Sheen, but a film that could be construed as great no matter how experienced the creators were.
The premise is rather simple and may even come across as stupid initially. But this story is filled with gorgeous imagery and insightful, symbolic undertones the likes of which have never been seen. This film is about a troubled young man named Kit (Sheen) with an eerie fascination with James Dean. He combs his hair like him and clearly tries to give off the same persona as the deceased movie star. This character falls in love with a slightly wealthier girl named Holly (played by Sissy Spacek). She tells Kit that her father wouldn’t accept him as her boyfriend. There are loads of love scenes in the gorgeously filmed countryside, and the film provides us with the illusion of a romance. Then, Kit, unable to cope with Holly’s father’s rejection, murders him. Holly doesn’t understand fully what Kit has done and goes off with him in a Cadillac into “the badlands of Montana”.
This technique is reminiscent of one of the true masters of filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock: we are given the idea that we are in a certain movie, and then we are swept entirely into another. But the film doesn’t turn into a blood-spattered, shock-filled murder story. That would be too easy. Instead of giving us the feel of a cheap thriller, Malick gives us something mythic. The story is told with an astounding marriage of sight, music and emotion that come across as almost dream-like. It truly takes a great director to give this storyline such an artistic, magical feel.
A fascinating aspect of Badlands is the fact that there is no real background information given to us about Kit. He’s sort of a mysterious wanderer, and we wonder if his true name is even Kit. Malick doesn’t show us whether he has a mother or a father, but we don’t need to see that. This character is best left a mystery, once again adding to that mythic quality that this film embodies. It ultimately contributes to the technique of shocking us with this young man’s sudden acts of violence. We never expected him to do such things, mainly because we don’t know enough about him to make such judgments.
In perhaps the most legendary and stunning scene in the film, Kit walks towards the horizon, his silhouette standing out against the darkening sky. He lays his rifle across his shoulders, homage to James Dean in 1956’s Giant. The symbolism is clear. This character has literally crucified himself with his own weapon. He knows that he can’t continue this trip forever, living only on lust and violence, but he thinks he might as well enjoy it while it lasts. Another reason the shot is so fascinating is that it once again shows us this character as what he is: a lone wanderer. Despite his young female sidekick, he is ultimately alone in his goals and his bizarre ambitions. This is just one example in an enormous montage of the aesthetically pleasing shots in this film (filmed by several cinematographers including Tak Fujimoto).
At times we forget that Kit and Holly are doing something really awful because their scenes together are filled with such a childlike wonder. In one charming scene, they have to hide out in a wealthy man’s mansion for a while. The two characters poke and prod through all of the man’s possessions like two toddlers would, and we feel that childlike view of the world around them coming on strongly again. Martin Sheen is incredible in this film, giving us a character that is both violent and thoughtful without knowing it. Sissy Spacek is equally impressive, giving out the aura of a childish teen who has yet to fully understand the world.
Malick’s script is also excellent, using an observant narrative by Holly to compliment the imagery. The music is perfectly chilling for the context. But the real star of this film is the cinematography. The characters move their way through the blank plains of Montana for almost an hour and a half, but the cinematography keeps us entranced the entire time. The movie is visually stunning. Terrence Malick created this gem with the precision in which Orson Welles created the monolithic Citizen Kane (1941). In short, Badlands is movie storytelling at its riveting best.
Dai (10 out of 10 )
Badlands (1973) is the expression of emptiness, alienation, lost identity, direction and dream experienced both personally by characters and as a nation. Kit and Holly leave South Dakota and drive through badlands of Montana where telephone lines vanish into inaccessible horizons. Roads are frequently pictured as empty fields without any direction to follow. The use of wide-angle lens and static compositions along with very long shoots enhance how open and empty the spaces are. This works as a visual metaphor for the emptiness of the two main characters and of the nation. The vast empty landscape leaves Kit and Holly directionless in the frontier.
This visual metaphor is seen as part of the state of America in 70’s. Badlands is metaphor for the ideological emptiness of America as the result of loss in Vietnam and social confusion of the 60s, JFK assassination for instance. The Vietnam War was indicated in the sequence where the couple lives in a tree house and prepares .
The highlight occurs when Kit and Holly drive on the dessert at night toward the mountains of Saskatchewan, with Holly’s voice-over, “We could make out the gas fires of the refineries at Missoula, while to the south, we could see the lights of Cheyenne, a city bigger and grander than I'd ever seen. I felt all kind of things looking at the lights of Cheyenne.” This sequence visually expressess the emotional state of the two characters and the nation.
The sequence, on the dusty desert highway and light at the distance, also resembles the opening lines of Eagle’s song Hotel California (1976), which reflect the state of America in the 70’s. Similar to Hotel California (1976), which is a metaphor for the nation, the lights of Cheyenne represents America, from which Kit and Holly feels detached.
As they look at the city lights/ civilization from distance, they are looking at our form of life and its values from a distance. With its laid back point of view, the film itself is looking at America from a distance.
The feeling of loneliness and detachment from the world dominated the two main characters. Holly speaks about the utter loneliness, for which Kit says solitude is the better word. This is partly due to the fact that they are running away from authority and society and their places in that society. Moreover, the experiences of alienation and fear of instability are shown to be fundamental parts of the character’s emotion. They experience freedom as they run away from civilization. It, however, requires them of loneliness and independence. Their emotion moves back and forth between the stable world with its tasks and the realization that the world and the values people share are not based on the justification nor stable foundations, especially Holly’s emotion as she mentioned, “The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return. I thought what a fine place it was.”
Badlands portrays alienation and directionless-ness as the nation lost its identity during the 70’s along with longing for American dream while its foundation is being questioned. The film deals with many themes that define the state of the nation in the 70’s, including loss of innocence, transient nature of fame, temptations, loss of pure love, and the end results of the American Dream both in narrative and visual.
Jerry (9 out of 10 )
Having seen the movie many, many years ago I have been hesitant to
read the same. I am glad that I did. I have to question wether the script portrays alienation and the direction of our nation, or if it is closer to a portrait of some of our combat vererans. Early on the script alludes to such with a reference to Korea, also the youth (25) of kit. It would not be unreal for a young man returning from conbat and turned loose into a rural society with no support group, VFW etc., he could frequent and feel like a normal person mingling with people such as himself making the often long difficult transition to reality.