Man, PG meant absolutely nothing in 1973. I'm not saying this movie is full on R, but it is hilarious to think that this movie is PG and almost anything live action is PG. But I have to give points to the 1970s, G actually meant something. This is a movie about a 25 year old murderer who seduces a 15 year old girl and goes on a murder spree around the country. PG.
DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick
Do you understand how much I want to teach Terrence Malick in my film class? At best, I use clips from movies to teach different concepts, but I never get a chance to devote an entire section to Malick himself. When we were expecting our first child, we took a trip to Quebec to visit the Just for Laughs comedy festival. Lauren was barfing up a lung like she currently is doing with our third child. (Surprise!) We thought that maybe a movie might distract her from the misery that is morning sickness. So I took her to The Tree of Life. This was not the movie to distract a pregnant lady. My genuine logic (besides the hidden selfishness of wanting to see this movie on the big screen) was that the movie was going to be so artsy and beautiful that she would re-fall in love with me and consider me so deep. She just left mad. I think it might be a good call to watch Badlands by myself.
I'm in a little bit of a pickle when it comes to this movie though. Badlands is a movie that covers a topic that I'm usually pretty bored with. I recently wrote a review of David Lynch's Wild at Heart recently and I mentioned how I normally don't love this plot. I'm talking about the Bonnie and Clyde / Natural Born Killers romantic crime spree across the country. I should like it. Every part of me normally loves what is associated with this. But I always get bored because the characters quickly become unlikable. I love me some Terrence Malick because his movies are about emotional experiences. He is the master of the visual and he manipulates mood like no other director I've seen. The one thing that I may have noticed is that the narratives often come secondary to the visuals. This works because the visuals are so strong that the narrative is only accentuated from the emotional manipulation going on with the imagery. But I don't like this story normally. How can I jump on board a story that is actively fighting me with its likability? One other thing about the narrative is that it is based around the idea that Martin Sheen's Kit is meant to be remarkably likable. It's kind of what the end centers around. (I'm not bolding the word "Spoiler" because that description is super vague.) The movie comes down to me liking what I'm watching with the anger that the narrative is somewhat revolting to me.
But perhaps I'm faulting Malick for the wrong thing. I may be feeling exactly what I'm supposed to be feeling. Malick does make Kit pretty icky for being the driving force in the narrative. Sissy Spacek's Holly is madly in love with him for a good portion of the movie, but even she feels alienated by him towards the end. Perhaps her internal narrative is telling me what to think. She grows more and more disillusioned by Kit's murder spree and I kind of agree. MILD SPOILERS: When Kit kills for the first time, it is for her. He doesn't seem like a psychopath at this point in the narrative. But that also brings in the idea that a 25 year old garbage man is seducing a 15 year old girl. Adding to that is the idea that Holly is an unreliable narrator. She says that their relationship is not about sex, but almost immediately does this scene get contradicted. (Bee-tee-dubs, I'm completely changing my opinion about this film as I write.) Perhaps the movie is about how Holly is forced to grow up and live with consequences. Her point of view becomes my point of view. As an adult, I grow frustrated with Holly and how naive she is portrayed, but her growth as a character tends to mirror mine. Her choice at the end seems absolutely silly, but then again, she still is a child. She shouldn't be self-actualized by the end of the film.
There's something really paradoxical about the whole character dynamics of the film. There's something seductive about Kit (not like that...perv.) that makes him a compelling character despite the fact that he is completely revolting. It makes a bit of sense that Holly would follow him everywhere. But I also have a hard time balancing that with the death of the first victim. I know that this story is loosely based on a true story, so I guess I can't complain too much saying that this wouldn't really happen. But I suppose that it did. Part of what makes Kit possibly so fascinating is that his back story is super vague. He seems extremely relatable in the opening sequence with him on the job as a garbageman. Malick does a fine job contrasting Kit with Holly's father, played by Warren Oates. (Has Warren Oates been in more classics than any other actor? I looked at his list and the answer is "No." But he's been in some amazing movies.) The big confusion is what changes in Kit from the opening scene. It is extremely possible and even likely that Kit was always a monster. But there is a choice not to let the audience in on that evil until he starts killing without provocation. There is something romantic about starting over and living in trees, but Malick does this amazing thing about letting the romance die naturally. The high that Holly experiences seems old and it is appropriate that the death happens in the middle of the titular location, the Badlands.
This is Malick's first full length film and the budget looks a little skimpy. The movie screams low-budge '70s, but I really like that. I can't help but think about the production values on The Tree of Life or Days of Heaven, but there is something special about seeing a young and hungry Malick. The shots of the Badlands are beautiful and many of the shots that would make him famous later on appear here. But this isn't the polished director I'd grown to love. It's like watching John Lennon record in his garage before The Beatles. It's awesome and charming, but it isn't the guy I was waiting to see. I think of Badlands like I think of Bottle Rocket. It's great in itself, but there is something way more gritty than what I would expect out of the same guy. Regardless, the hunger is impressive and I kind of like it. Heck, writing about this piece made me love it more than I thought I did.
I would write more, but this computer is possessed. I can't handle it. If there are a billion typos, I apologize.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.