Badlands - A Meditative View of Love And Death

                                    Badlands is a simple, PG rated film, which makes a much more eloquent and enduring statement about American culture's glorification of violence. The movie presents us a man who kills for neither joy nor pain. He rather kills for the sheer convenience of the act, thinking of neither the repercussions that might eventually come down on him, or of  the suffering of his victim. To be brief, he is apathetic. Even though the theme here is 'alienation of youth,' it finds a rigorous poetic voice in 'Badlands.'  The movie also marks the feature-film debut of visionary director  'Terrence Malick.'

                                     Terrence Malick is a rare kind of a film-maker. In the four decades as film-maker, he has only directed five films. After 'Days of Heaven' in 1978, he he literally took off and didn't touch a camera for 20 years, then returned triumphantly with "The Thin Red Line" as the same brilliant artist. Terrence Malick's films doesn't have an exceptional story, but the images you see in his movies are very unique, so different from anything you usually see that it takes a while or even a second viewing to truly appreciate them. Like all his films, 'Badlands,' at first seems disorienting, because it doesn't follow the genre conventions. But this, fictionalized account of Starkweather's 1950s killing spree, is a cult classic--mixing together murder, banality, pop culture, love, romance, and alienation.  

        'Badlands' is a fictionalized account of real-life exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Kit (Martin Sheen) is working as a garbage collector because he doesn't have anything better to do. He is a vagrant with no particular place to go and nothing to do. Holly (Sissy Spacek) is a 15 year old girl, with long beautiful hair. Kit meets Holly, immediately falls for her, and they begin a courtship. Holly isn't pretty or doesn't have a great personality. Yet she looks strangely mature for a 15-year old. 

              In their courtship, they're not having raucous fun, they don't have long conversations about anything, or they don't rebel flamboyantly against authority figures. Both Holly and kit seem incapable of showing emotions toward each other. Holly's domineering father (Warren Oates) doesn't want Kit around his house, so Kit shoots him and burns the house down. Holly eerily not minding that her father is dead, runs off with Kit. 

               Thus begin long cross country crime spree, as the excitement and paranoia of the possible arrival of the outlaw Kit Carruthers spreads through the Great Plains. At first, Kit has his excuses for killing people, such as when he guns down three bounty hunters searching for him and Holly in the woods where they are hiding. Throughout the plot, Malick sneakily builds a biting commentary on the American infatuation with violent crimes and criminals.

                 The searing central performances by Sheen and Spacek are amazing. Martin Sheen is by turns terrifying and infectiously likable, one of his best next to Apocalypse Now. His character, Kit is full of contradictions. He is not counter-cultural, does not defy institutional authority per se, and he also shows respect for Holly's education, insisting that she takes her books with her so that she won't “fall behind.” Sissy Spacek as Holly, showing innocence in the face of Kit's violence is scary in itself. Spacek plays Holly with such offhanded withdrawal -- as if the gum she's chewing is the dream she's pondering over -- that only glances suggest that her heart might be racing. 

                 Director Terrence Malick doesn't romanticize the runaways or judge them, but just tells their story as it is and allows the viewer to fill in all the missing pieces. The evil portrayed in this movie is unique, in that it carries no emotional baggage. When the incidents are over in the movie, there is little to say because only his murderous acts remain, with no true aftermath to speak of. He also makes sure, that we never confuse Kit and Holly with Bonnie and Clyde. A lack of passion differentiates them from the gaudy outlaws of the thirties.

                 The most important reason to watch 'Badlands' is Malick's choices in camera placement, and the powerfully photographed harsh bleakness of the South Dakota lands by cinematographers Brian Probyn, Tak Fujimoto, and Steven Larner. This movie is also among the best examples I have ever seen of the perfect use of music. The music by George Tipton didn't sounded out of place, and I couldn't imagine the scenes without their musical accompaniment. 

                 Badlands depicts moral emptiness as an inevitable by-product of mass society and its vulgar culture. The dysfunctional role of the media and its thirst for sensationalism confers status on small-time criminals, turning them into instant celebrities. The characters are a product of its materialistic times, where television and movies colors everyone's actions. The protagonist's actions, though never explained, tell much more than if they were attempted to be explained. This movie is a convincing case-study of people headed for hell and looking, talking and acting pretty much like any of us.

                 Badlands, portraying the two lost violent souls, is a complex, morally ambiguous film and an indisputable masterpiece of American cinema.


Badlands - IMDb 


Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

Mr Mallick is a very talented director who spends yeas on a film. He's in no hurry to make a film. This one here is a true masterpiece. Loved Martin's performance and Sissy's innocence.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

I have been wanting to watch this one since a very long time. Your review has provided me the right kind of impetus. I will surely come back to discuss this once I am through with it!

Unknown said...

thanks for sharing:)will surely watch

Vinita Apte said...

I have seen the movie 'The thin red line' long back but it had a deep impact on me.

This movie really sounds eerie. Will watch it if I am in the right frame of mind.

Arun Kumar said...

@Haricharan, Thanks for the comment.

@Murtaza Ali, Thank you, and waiting for your opinion.

Arun Kumar said...

@alka narula, Thanks for the comment.

@Vinita, All of Terrence Malick's movies will have a deep impact on movie-lovers. Also, check out his other movies like, Days of Heaven and The New World.