• 50 Years Later, Terrence Malick’s Badlands Remains a Pure Encapsulation of American Violence

    Gus Mitchell on the Singular Director’s Debut Film

    “I got some stuff to say,” Kit says to Holly, in the first few minutes of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. “Guess I’m kinda lucky that way.” Released 50 years ago, Badlands is the violent, compulsive opening of Malick’s singular moviemaking life; he has spent that life directing films that demand seeing and re-seeing. For his part, Martin Sheen, who played Kit, describes the Malick effect for those fortunate enough to be susceptible to it as “a certain kind of lyricism that just strikes some deep part of you and that you hold on to.” For this reason, writing about any Malick film is strangely awkward. You feel his suspicion of having “some stuff to say.”

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    The director turns 80 this year. From the 1950s desert of Badlands to the 1916 Texas panhandle in Days of Heaven toward a culmination of sorts in 2005’s The New World––which makes the 1607 English arrival in Virginia and the romance of John Smith and Pocahontas into a tragic foundational myth—his films are both universal and wholly American. His debut starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Kit and Holly, a young couple on a desperate, murderous ride across the Midwest.

    For almost as long as he has been making films, Malick has largely avoided public appearances or interviews. In the couple of years after Badlands’ release, however, he did give a couple, and from these can be gleaned the reasons for his self-recusal. Theorizing and writing about such work as he creates (to use his own words from 1974) “just comes out sounding like a theory.” His film aesthetic is inseparable from his ethic, from a worldview. Almost uniquely in cinema, each of his films is in fact a worldview. They are in a sense complete and contained in themselves.

    In the interviews around Badlands, Malick was asked about his aspirations for his work. He replied always along the lines of “setting a mood” or “setting a tone.” Perceiving the world takes primacy over narrative: color, movement, contrast, montage, sequence, objects and things, animals, and people; appearances, sounds, music. The ceaseless possibility of interweaving all these things to allow an opening into what Malick called a “sense of things, of how the world falls.” There is place, not “setting.” Character rather than “character development.” Badlands shows that Malick knew from the very beginning the gift which cinema alone can offer.

    The journey toward Badlands was circuitous. Born in November 1943 to an American mother and a second-generation Lebanese-Armenian father, Malick grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, excelled academically, and went to Harvard to study philosophy under a young Stanley Cavell. He was drawn toward studying Heidegger, still very much a minority interest in America. Graduating in 1965, Malick went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to pursue a PhD, but left in protest after his thesis advisor, arch-analytical philosophy don Gilbert Ryle, refused to let him pursue his chosen thesis (on the concept of World in Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein) due to it not being “philosophical” enough.

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    After drifting between the worlds of academia and journalism in his late twenties, Malick enrolled in the master’s program at the newly opened AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles—because film seemed “no less improbable a career than anything else.” Graduating in 1971 with just a 20-minute satirical Western short (Lanton Mills) to his name, Malick started raising funds for an independent feature. The development process for Badlands became almost as mythic as the film itself, the outcome of which young directors would come to regard as a kind of North Star.

    Malick had been moonlighting as a screenwriter and rewriter for a few years; with an executive producer, Edward Pressman (who put up early funds out of his family’s successful toy company), Malick went about raising money everywhere he could. He was determined to make Badlands the way he wanted and bypass studio interference. His parents put up some money; he put in $25,000 from his own savings, and raised the rest from non-Hollywood people—doctors, lawyers, and other middle-class types, who believed in the young man’s vision. Like Orson Welles 30 years before, Malick had a precocious ability to charm those who should have held his youth in suspicion. His gentleness and his childish curiosity helped keep people—and especially actors—onside.

    Badlands is the violent, compulsive opening of Malick’s singular moviemaking life.

    Not that production was smooth. It seems that, even then, Malick inspired devotion in some and exasperation in others. Spacek remembered: “The shoot went on forever because people kept quitting. They were completely brutalized. They’d be setting up one shot over here, then Terry would look over in the other direction where the moon was rising up and he’d go, ‘Let’s shoot over there!’” Today, Malick’s reputation for spontaneity—rewriting his scripts as he shoots or changing plans on a whim in response to a new idea—is well-known. In the early 1970s, though, and still today, making a film in such a style was a trying endeavor. Malick ran through three cinematographers, several editors, sound, and other crew people. But, as Pressman noted, “Despite the input of these different hands,” the film “looks remarkably seamless. If the picture survived all those problems, it’s because one thing was consistent: Terry’s vision.”

    The screenplay was based on a lurid true story of the late 1950s. Charles Starkweather, a blue collar 19-year-old, murdered the parents and infant sister of his under-age girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, and then fled with her across the Midwest on a spree that left ten more dead. Fugate was sentenced to life. She seems to have had some contact with Malick (who sympathized with her) around the film, during which time she was up for parole. Starkweather was sentenced to the electric chair.

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    The Starkweather case—and with it, the concept of “thrill murders”—triggered a national media campaign of panic. In Sheen’s words, it “affected [young people] on a very deep level. His image, his persona…he gave us an inside glimpse into the very worst part of ourselves. His character, his image of himself…in this country, we’re more interested in image than reality, and this guy is a reflection of that.” Starkweather, like Sheen’s Kit, modelled himself after that idol of his decade: James Dean.

    The film’s stars were largely unknown. Spacek, in her early twenties, shared Malick’s 1950s Texan upbringing, and the realization of the 15-year-old Holly, the narrator and strangely distanced protagonist, was a collaboration between them. “He would ask me questions,” she remembered. “What would Holly think about this, how would Holly do this?” Spacek’s is such a restrainedly compelling performance that the audience ends up leaning, unconsciously, towards her—straining to make some sense of her. Sheen, in his early thirties, told Malick he was too old to play the role—so the director made the character older. Denim-jacketed, tight-white-teed, with unruly Dean hair and squint and cigarette, in the affected disaffection of his loping, rangy strides, Sheen embodies the kind of uncertain charisma that threatens to teeter (but never does) into parody.

    Kit is the film’s black hole, Malick’s challenge to the audience and to American manhood.

    In Malick’s interviews, a phrase that arises repeatedly is “fairy tale.” Though set in Eisenhower’s America of the 1950s, he wanted the film to appear “outside time.” A fairy tale “follows its own logic,” he said—just like Kit and Holly do. His lovers live in their own world, a world of images and self-images that trump reality. Many consider Badlands to be the story of “two psychopaths on the run,” as one documentary about Malick dubs it. But this judgment is a trap into which he invites us. He insisted that “I see no gulf between them and myself…What I find patronizing is people not leaving the characters alone, stacking the deck for them, not respecting their integrity, their difference.”

    Holly’s toneless voiceover—a trademark of Malick’s—opens the film: My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman.

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    Malick’s voiceovers never commit the sin of telling over showing; they are, instead, another dimension, a plane outside of, or beyond, the story as shown to us. Malick called Holly “a typical Southern girl in her desire to help, to give hard fact; not to dwell upon herself, which to her would be unseemly, but always to keep in mind the needs of others.” She is aware of herself as narrator, as a main character who “doesn’t really know her audience. It’s not that she’s simple-minded; she just thinks this is how she should talk when speaking to other people.”

    She tells her story in the style of the glossy lifestyle magazines of the mid-50s, full of melodramatic romance: “He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.” Or: “I sensed that my destiny now lay with Kit, and it was better to spend a week with one who loved me for what I was, than years of loneliness.” Or (my favorite): “It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know him at the same time.”

    Malick’s sympathies are usually with women, and in his vision of the inseparability of human and nature, his women are closer to nature (and the truth) because they are more “open.” The first thing we learn is that Holly has only ever known a man’s world, has never had a mother’s influence. Kit’s killing of her father (whose violent dominance is established early on when he shoots her dog as a punishment) is no liberation, just a transfer of power. Unlike the morally senseless Kit, Holly clearly feels the power of good and evil, right and wrong. But, in Malick’s words, “She just doesn’t know what to have moral feelings about.”

    Badlands is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are mythic. 

    Malick is perceptive too of the ways that men turn women into icons rather than letting them be people—substitutes for the lacunae in themselves. If Holly’s voiceover speaks out of and into a kind of American deafness—to an audience that might judge her thoughts banal or irrelevant—then Kit is the film’s black hole, Malick’s challenge to the audience and to American manhood. He doesn’t know who he is nor what he wants; he doesn’t know why he’s killing people, and he can’t discover any reason to stop. He thinks of himself as some amalgam of American (male) archetypes: resourceful and ruthless frontiersman, outlaw, gunslinger, pioneer, rebel without a cause.

    But the truth about figures like Kit is that they are, in truth, always reactionary—precisely because they view themselves as lone individuals, in opposition to the world. Malick likened Kit to “an Eisenhower conservative…a total supporter of the civic order.” “Listen to your parents or teachers,” Kit says, in one of the voice memos he feels compelled to leave to posterity. “They got an inside line in most things, so don’t treat them like enemies. Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority of opinion—once it’s accepted.” The one victim he chooses to spare is a rich man in whose house he and Holly briefly take refuge.

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    Malick told Sheen: “Think of that gun in your hand as a magic wand. Nothing serious, nothing personal. Someone gets in your way and—pouf—they’re gone. Disappeared.” Badlands is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are mythic. He did not want to be trapped within “50s nostalgia” but to say something about the substrate of America’s soul. It is a substrate made of violence, the true mythic foundation, the reason that the country came into being—something Malick later directly explored in The New World. For the early 70s, and still more today, Badlands is a complete, singularly pure encapsulation of American violence. When commentators speak of gun violence as an “epidemic,” it is a metaphor closer to reality than they often recognize. It is an epidemic that spreads by imitation—just as Kit and Starkweather thought that the way to become James Dean was to kill people.

    In what is perhaps Badlands’ most famous shot, Kit stands silently looking out over vast Montana. The clouds drift across the sunset. The moon is coming out. The desert is glorious. Yet the landscape before him is mute and unattainable. He looks lost, his arms hooked helplessly over the rifle strung across his shoulders. The image has (surely intentional) echoes of a Crucifixion. He’s become a kind of human instantiation of America’s philosophy of violence—violence as self-actualization. “You’re quite an individual, Kit,” one of the cops says to him at the film’s close; Kit replies: “Think they’ll take that into consideration?” It’s hard to tell how seriously he means it.

    In Malick’s own 1969 translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons, we read: “Freedom is the reason for reasons.” What we think of as freedom and the ability to make sense of, to find meaning in, to “reason” the world, are the same thing. Our freedom lies in our ability to create and destroy what we call “the world.” If God or Nature made The Earth, then humans make “the world.” The late philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who taught Malick at Harvard and later taught courses on his cinema, had an elegantly simple definition: “The world is kind of the background of common sense, as to what it makes sense to do, and what it doesn’t make sense to do.”

    Perhaps philosophy can’t be suitably written about film, but film can certainly perform a kind of philosophy. In The World Viewed, about the congruence of philosophy and film, Malick’s former professor, Stanley Cavell, asks: “To whom, from where, does one address a letter to the world? To what end does one wish to leave one’s mark upon the world?” This is one way of putting a question Badlands also asks. Holly addresses an unknowable audience. Kit, said Malick, “thinks he’s a character of incredible importance,” striving to leave some mark on the landscape. Bodies. Buried treasures. Finally, a pile of stones.

    Gus Mitchell
    Gus Mitchell
    Gus Mitchell lives and works freelance in London. His plays have been shown in London and elsewhere and his writing appears or is forthcoming in Wired, Compact, Maisonneuve, Long Now, and other places.

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