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.