“Badlands”: Love Is Strange
Published on May 9th, 2013 | by Paul Anthony Johnson0
“Badlands” opens May 10 at Film Forum.
Running time: 94 minutes; 1973; Unrated
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Before Terrence Malick became Terrence Malick, he was mostly just the oddball screenwriter (of “Pocket Money” with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, “Deadhead Miles” with Alan Arkin) with a sardonic sense of humor and a talent for evoking local color and the eccentric details of American life lived on the margins.
And of course he was also the director of “Badlands” (1973), probably the best and strangest of the vast wave of low-budget lovers-on-the-lam movies that followed in the wake of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde.”
Malick’s debt to Penn was personal—he considered him a friend and mentor, and “Badlands” is dedicated to him. Martin Sheen’s disaffected serial killer Kit evokes not only aspects of Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow, but bears an even more striking resemblance to Paul Newman’s psycho punk take on Billy the Kid in Penn’s debut feature, “The Left-Handed Gun” (1958). Which is all to say that where currently Malick seems like one of cinema’s great anachronisms, making movies whose rhythms and sensibilities seem radically and beguilingly out of tune with virtually everything else in modern American filmmaking, in 1973 he was more clearly of his time, part of a tradition and responsive to the creative and commercial currents of the era. While Malick remains a distinctive, intriguing filmmaker, “Badlands,” a fable of love doomed and damned and in retreat amidst a sensuous rock and roll oblivion, is still his most compelling feature, largely because it’s such an eerie and succinct distillation of the ethos of desolation and revelation that took hold of the best American movies of the early ’70s.
The film, very loosely based on the 1957 crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, tells the story of Kit (Martin Sheen), a 25-year-old ne’er-do-well, and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old girl recently transplanted to South Dakota from Texas by her stern, recently widowed father (Warren Oates), two misfits who strike up a romance motivated more by desperate boredom and loneliness than ardor. Holly’s father disapproves of the pairing, and soon forbids his daughter from seeing Kit, resulting in a confrontation that kicks off a murder spree that eventually costs eight lives over the course of several days.
The film echoes the dreamy lyricism of “Bonnie & Clyde” and its antecedents (especially Truffaut’s 1962 masterpiece “Jules and Jim”) while simultaneously defusing it, creating an ironic juxtaposition between the pulpy teen romance delusions shared by Kit and Holly and the desultory world they incidentally inhabit, an irony that helps differentiate Sheen’s matinee idol psychopath from his cinematic brethren. Where “Bonnie & Clyde” at least partially bought into its heroes’ heroic outsider self-image (particularly in the Hooverville scene), in “Badlands” there’s no doubt that Kit is simply a coldblooded killer, albeit one with delusions of grandeur. Sheen’s performance is remarkably opaque, very physical and reactive but with little of the kind of gestural nuance that might evoke unspoken desires, and he conveys a sense of a man who lacks any significant inner life. He’s a rube constituted of postures and attitudes copped from the movies (at the film’s end, he’s clearly chuffed when one of the cops who apprehend him tells him he looks just like James Dean) and American kitsch myths gleaned from records and comic books. As a consequence, Kit is eternally likable and easygoing, because he’s so lacking in depth that he winds up seeming unnervingly innocent of his own evil. Unlike the ersatz Freudianism that always explained away the violence of so many American antiheroes, Kit is an enigma, without any back story or clinical diagnosis that might make his violence comfortingly familiar.
In his laconic blankness and his deceptive evocation of James Dean’s wounded menace, Kit comes across as a consummate male creature of the 1950s. “Badlands” was made at a time when American pop culture was in the deep thralls of a deceptive nostalgia for the America of the long, pre-JFK assassination ’50s, an infatuation that manifested itself in the likes of Sha Na Na Na and George Lucas’s “American Graffiti.” The latter, released in the same year as “Badlands,” epitomized a sweet melancholia about the era that went hand in hand with a prelapsarian myth about American manhood before Vietnam, a myth “Badlands” casually deflates every time Kit pulls a gun or flashes a grin at somebody. “American Graffiti” became a hit and got an Academy Award nomination, while “Badlands” closed the New York Film Festival to mixed reviews and quickly sank into box office oblivion, a testament to the former film’s exuberant, rock & roll juiced affection for the fable of American innocence and the latter film’s spare, bitter, darkly beautiful treatment of innocence as a catastrophically dangerous alibi for evil. And as guileless purity incarnate, Spacek (in her first major film performance) gives a marvelously strange performance. Her affectless narration came to define Malick’s style—that bland-unto-profound “True Teenage Confessions” Romanticism which pours forth from wise-ass punkettes, warrior dime store poets, and moody hippie mystics alike in Malick’s subsequent movies. Holly’s blank, bland acceptance of all of life’s little atrocities is alternately comic and terrifying. She’s the kind of little girl lost who can blandly and curiously ask a man about his pet spiders as he lies on his bed bleeding to death and a few minutes later can mutter best girlfriend chit-chat banalities to a girl who has to walk across a foreboding Andrew Wyeth landscape toward Kit and his pistol. Like Kit, she seems to exist slightly out of phase with the rest of the world, and it’s this dangerous and lonely distinction that makes their sad, muted rapture attractive despite its lethality.
Early in the film, shortly after they’ve gone on the run after having murdered her father, Kit and Holly have created a forest refuge, complete with booby traps and a nifty treehouse, and amidst all the deranged Swiss Family Robinson shenanigans, the two young lovers dance to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” as its plays from a portable radio. The scene distills the mad, awkward allure of that song’s camp passion into a funny little waltz—she swings her hips delicately back and forth and he does a cutesy little chicken walk around her. It’s as weird and unsettling as Kenneth Anger’s use of Brill Building euphoria to score biker gang nihilism in “Scorpio Rising” (1964) and as serendipitous as Martin Scorsese’s understanding that no one articulated an angry Catholic boy’s hunger for meaning and feeling in the urban abyss like the Ronettes did when they desperately implored some spooky specter for his devotion in “Be My Baby” in the opening sequence of “Mean Streets” (1973). This electric current of pop desire at its most urgent and angry and mysterious flows through much of the best American cinema and music in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s bitterly conveyed by every haunted, elegiac frame of “Badlands.”