Terrence Malick has made plenty of hay from the notion that all stories are only a microcosm of the infinitesimal. That there is some current of Truth or Beauty or Devastation or Something thrumming underneath the surface of any cultural product. He has a habit of punctuating the immediacy of on-screen action with a wealth of environmental context, using establishing shots that situate his stories not just in their physical settings but in their relationship with the natural order as well (say, an extreme close-up of conifer needles in the midst of a hideout set-up montage for a murderous teen and his runaway girlfriend). Ironically then, a convention of cinema that normally anchors the audience in a sort of narrative reality instead serves a destabilizing function, as the story’s place in the world (and in the case of Tree of Life, the universe) is brought into constant question. Many who have seen a Malick film know (and at times, lament) this conceit, but to see it on display so clearly in a directorial debut is at least a testament to the strength of his conviction. Badlands (1973) tracks Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) on a rambling stretch of murders and misadventures across South Dakota and into Montana in 1959. Inspired by the true story of Charles Starkweather’s headline-grabbing killing spree, the film dilutes its brutality with an airy, dreamlike innocence that could be described as “cute” or “Ur-twee” if it were applied to a different subject matter. In creating distance between audience and subject and giving the film a dusting of surrealism, the film is able to arrive at something like a commentary on the cognitive dissonance inherent to American image creation.
As is his wont, Malick takes every opportunity in this film to celebrate the natural world surrounding his characters. It is telling that executive producer Edward Pressman, in reflecting on the film’s production history, surmises that the second unit shot just as much (if not more) footage as the principal. Interstices of flora and fauna permeate every scene, as if nature is keeping tabs on these two wounded and wounding lovers, or as if Kit and Holly are just another part of the landscape. Coupling these waves of organic imagery with the heavy use of fading to and from black (another Malick staple) gives the scenes a stanzaic quality, and we drift through a landscape teeming with equal parts terror and beauty. Domesticity seems to arise as a constant threat to this landscape, as the tranquility of sleepy Midwestern life is interrupted multiple times by violent or otherwise disturbing vignettes involving dogs and cows. Dogs especially figure prominently in the first act, perhaps foregrounding the tension between domestication and atavism that could be said to drive Kit if it weren’t for the opacity of his motives. In another scene, a storm rages far off on the horizon as Kit looks out over the plains. This image provides a more succinct reading of the film’s male lead: there is an unknowable and violent spectacle to him that we can really only grasp from a distance. Psychologizing the “man of action” is not one of this film’s interests. Instead, it gives any instances of inward reflection and personal history over to Holly, possibly parodying traditions of sentimentality and literary realism (and much could be said about what the film does with the gendering of genres). She approaches a psychoanalysis of Kit in the form of supposing that there’s “something wrong with his bean,” but it doesn’t go much deeper than that. It may seem to be a philosophical cop-out to chalk up Kit’s behavior as something that’s simply “in his nature,” but Malick at least backs this up with plenty of visions of the sort of nature that might contain a man like this.
Despite all of its nihilist underpinnings, Badlands is, for lack of a better term, fun. Our criminal couple is idiosyncratic and funny, even if they lack the ramshackle energy of a Bonnie and Clyde (it’s noteworthy that Arthur Penn is thanked in the credits). I wonder if the anti-hero shtick would have been tired by 1973, but Kit and Holly are a textbook example of New Hollywood boundary-pushing and moral ambiguity in that they commit acts of mindfully shot mindless violence while simultaneously charming us with their gentle and personable demeanor. There’s a whimsy here that seems almost impossible to pull off, but is bolstered by the pockets of surrealism that Malick lets into his film: a live fish out of water expands and contracts slowly on a nightstand while Kit stares off in bed, a house burns brilliantly while a children’s choir sings a cacophonous mixture of English and German. In this dreamlike world Kit and Holly can retain some sort of innocence, and the camera can spend more time on the poetry of their aimless passion than the ugliness of their actions. The music in the film readily works in service of this paradox, with the young couple taking breaks between the murderous kinesis to dance to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” and Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” (both scenes indelible: the former should strike a familiar chord for fans of Moonrise Kingdom, the latter is dreamily shot in the desert under heavy key lighting from a car headlight and beautifully blurs the lines between romance and melancholy). Contrast this with Holly’s father (Warren Oates), a painter who comes on as quirky if mildly patriarchal at first but eventually devolves into a cruel and domineering monster. In the fog of the film’s liminality, criminals are expressive and creative while artists are violently committed to maintaining the status quo.
The film traffics in this sort of skewing of the way image-making is used to maintain social order. The ghost of James Dean hangs over Kit and helps to usher him into celebrity status by film’s end. Sheen’s costuming and hair certainly strike that image, but it’s rounded out by comparisons explicitly drawn by characters throughout and the cover of a gossip mag that Holly reads aloud. Kit is also very aware of how cool he has been made by infamy, taking various quirky steps to ensure the posterity of his story. And so, this storybook crime drama leaves us wondering how or if we are supposed to learn anything from mediated retellings of true stories. If that kind of rigging of social commentary to an actual tragedy seems specious, don’t let it bother you too much. As Malick would have it, we’re all just rocks and chaparral in the badlands anyway.