BADLANDS (1973)

I never would have thought a movie about serial killers could be so delightful, and I mean that without any irony. I spent the first act trying to remember my “favorite bits” so far, but they soon became too frequent for me to bother. One might expect such a story to forfeit its initially carefree tone once it takes the inevitable dark turn, but Malick doesn’t abide such banalities and I increasingly enjoyed the movie for its consistently light, even breezy tone rather than for vignettes. Its absence of moral judgment is not merely unproblematic but entirely irrelevant since it maintains the deadly duet’s point of view throughout. (I can’t believe I just typed “deadly duet”—has Joe Siegel’s restless soul found its new host?)

Since Badlands is an example of the Killing Spree Romance species of the Outlaws on the Run subgenus, it belongs by definition to the genre of American Road Movie but with a profound exception: there are very few roads in it. Instead of the classic shot (or moribund convention) of the dotted yellow line endlessly whizzing by, Malick films the offroad prairies as they pass before the Cadillac’s headlights. The film is great enough as it is, but the musical appointments raise it to another level. The score’s theme, with choral embellishments, is particularly memorable, while the pop selections are inspired, from Mickey and Sylvia’s Love Is Strange playing while Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek dance in the woods, to Nat King Cole serenading their dance in the headlights.

Of course it’s axiomatic that Malick is a brilliant director, visual stylist, etc., etc., but what I hadn’t realized (having seen only The New World) is what an exceptional writer he is. The dialogue is some of the funniest I’ve heard without ever demanding aloud guffaws. Credit to both Sheen and Spacek for their natural, seemingly oblivious delivery of them, but their conversations, with each other as well as whomever they encounter, are priceless. Scene after scene ends with a conversational non sequitor that acts like a punchline. Sheen’s folk philosophizing and Spacek’s narration has all the charm of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, but without the attention seeking (promiscuous?) vocabulary that makes the Coen brothers’ screenplay feel by comparison like an overdone Tarantino script.

I can’t believe I’d ever consider Spacek attractive but she’s undeniably cute here, thanks primarily to her short shorts. Martin Sheen too was made for the role, and I can see where Charlie got his natural charm from (he must have stolen Emilio’s share as well). Our sympathy for this killer stems, far from charismatic rebellion, vicarious wish-fulfillment, or underdog empowerment (cf. Thelma and Louise, Thelma and Louise, and Thelma and Louise), but simply because he’s so dispassionate toward his victims. They’re not his enemies, just unlucky. He harbors against them no ill will, so to speak, as his murders are accompanied by not hate but indifference. His nonchalance is initially shocking, but it is so convincing that he quickly makes us forget what he’s just done. (When his personality later has the same effect on the authorities, their friendly reactions appear revolting until we recognize he’s been doing the same to us for the past hour.) His pathological detachment, and that of the audience, is further enabled by the lack of blood which makes these crimes resemble bee stings more than shootings.

Understatement is the governing principle of the film that connects the lack of violent outbursts, deficit of emotional functions, and absence of raised voices. It is such a pleasant contrast to the usual fare that comparable films I otherwise enjoy, like Wild at Heart, seem positively vulgar by contrast. (But then Wild at Heart might be considered vulgar by any standard.) In any case I think Badlands might be in my personal Top 50 now.

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5 thoughts on “BADLANDS (1973)

  1. natebell says:

    Personal top 50? I was hoping for top 20…

    Very fine review, Nobody. It makes me lament Malick’s evolution as a filmmaker (though I admit I just don’t “get” his newfound style—something definitely happened during that 20-year hiatus). While I find some of the dialogue too calculatedly idiotic (“We should crush our hands with this rock so we’ll remember this day always.” “Wouldn’t it hurt?” “That’s the point, stupid.” “Don’t call me stupid.”), most of it’s brilliant for the very reasons you mentioned. Spacek’s narration (simultaneously artless and poetic) in particular sets the precedent for all subsequent Malick narrations. Just wait until you see Days of Heaven!

    Any thoughts on its value as a commentary on Eisenhower-era America? The actual events that inspired the film (the 1958 Starkweather-Fugate killing spree) is interesting in its social implications.

  2. Nobody says:

    Funny you should say that, I was about to say Top 20 but thought I should hedge my bets a bit since I’ve only seen it once and I wrote this immediately after seeing it instead of letting it settle for a bit. And as a rule I’m trying to reign in my unqualified praise for every movie I like. There already are 50 movies in my Top 20! That’s why I’m calling it my Top 50 now.

    More later but I’m being kicked out of this computer lab at the moment.

  3. Nobody says:

    As for social commentary, it’s nicely implicit rather than explicit since their POV is maintained so we never see the media hype except for that newsreel-style montage (itself implying their POV). It’s not really till the last few minutes that we realize they’ve become killebrities (my coinage: no Google hits!), even–or especially?–to the cops.

    Kit seems to realize this, however, but it is unclear whether his self-mythologizing is opportunistic or something he would done without the media’s augmentation of it. His making a marker of the place where he’s caught had precedent in the scene you quoted, implying it was a personality trait, but I think there was a synergy at work. Turning himself in was definitely a shrewd move since it allowed him the opportunity to finally enjoy the payoff of his long solitude’s investment. The scene that keeps making me smile despite it’s repugnance is Kit giving away his lighter, comb, and pen, and I think that scene and my reaction are a microcosm of the whole film and its effect.

    As for 50s-specific commentary, there’s that James Dean fascination taken directly from Starkweather, suggesting the genesis of “the teenager” as a new identity quickly led to the self-apotheosis of the teenager who transcends morality.

    I think what surprised me the most was Malick’s denial of the expectation that the authorities (the film’s proxy of the public) in the 50s would have been universally horrified by them and not taken in by the celebritism we lament today. Of course the film may be “about” the 70s more than the 50s, but tabloid culture was just as prevalent then, referenced by Holly reading the magazine to Kit who is charmed by its lowbrow ironic humor. If anything, by contrast with Nick at Nite reruns the period’s tabloid interests seem especially purient, but that in itself is more a result of our false image of the period, like our general impression that Victorian pornography is an oxymoron. In some ways L.A. Confidential was a great corrective against the Pleasantville meme.

    As for other interpretations of the Starkweather-Fugate incidents and the media, as much as I like the beginning of Natural Born Killers with its ingenious and hyperdisturbing sitcom parody with the laugh track everytime Rodney Dangerfield calls Juliette Lewis a bitch, it’s thereafter a nearly worthless movie that typifies everything Badlands isn’t. As for its media commentary update with the follow-along camera crew, I think… wait for it… Domino is a better metafictional meditation on “reality TV”!

  4. natebell says:

    Killebrities. Love it. I have nothing to add, except that Kit’s obsession with leaving behind a record of his spree reads like a misguided attempt to remind people he was special in an era of conformists. Lots to chew on, obviously.

    Did you know that was Malick as the house-caller in the white suit?

  5. Nobody says:

    Kit recording the record was one of my favorite early scenes!

    Yeah, I discovered it was him thanks to Martin Sheen’s interview on the DVD but I didn’t recognize him during the movie because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of him. The impression I get is that he wants it that way. I might go through the extras on the New World DVD to see if there’s a glimpse of him.

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