Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate were a couple of teenagers who committed a series of dispassionate meaningless murders in 1957. Eleven people died, most of the victims didn’t even know why. Malick changed their names respectively to Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis, altered their ages; presumably changed a few surface details too – and made it into Badlands. The film however retains the inexplicability of the crimes and the opaqueness of the characters to analysis.
It begins with 15 year-old Holly telling us of the death of her mother ten years back and the distance that has grown in those ten years between father and daughter. The narration is drawling and disengaged. We are introduced to Kit, who works on the garbage route. Kit: who is tired of others, who’s silently fighting something invisible (I recall the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Dave shadowboxes in the circular space-shuttle). Kit oozes James Dean (who else but the hero of Rebel Without A Cause!) in everything he does – the reckless charm, masculine temper and boyish innocence of someone who hasn’t really grown up inspite of his years.
And of course, they fall in love.
But why are Kit and Holly drawn to each other? Is it their shared loneliness, the hope that they’ll find some reason? That isn’t explained. Badlands doesn’t care for explicatory details. Neither does it judge its protagonists. Malick observes and portrays, but with the same detachment that characterizes Holly’s narration.
Ritwik Ghatak mentions in his book Cholochchitro Manush Ebong Aaro Kichhu that he’d often plan every shot in his mind before outdoor shoots, go to the locale and discover a stray cloud in the sky that he could not leave out anyhow. That cloud would give a sudden inspiration around which he’d then rearrange everything. In case of Malick, it seems as if every shot of his was planned at the very outset with the spectacular play of light on the sky in his mind. Given the time he takes to make a film (he has made only three after Badlands, which was released in 1973), it leads me to wonder if he really did wait for just the perfect backdrop to start shooting his scenes.
Consider the first meeting of Kit and Holly. The town they live in – Fort Dupree, South Dakota – is idyllic. It has large trees overlooking the avenues, and neighbours apparently live contented and immersed in their own work. Holly is shown playing around on the lawn with a walking-stick. Kit walks up to her.
Kit: Well listen, Holly....
You, I don't know....
You want to take a walk with me?
Holly: What for?
Kit: I got some stuff to say.
Guess I'm kind of lucky that way.
Most people don't have anything on their minds, do they?
The conversation that follows however is of no worth. Their alienation is fed by their inability to articulate. Throughout this exchange there is no music. The silence, the idleness in the air, the wandering narrative and the quiet elegance of the locale makes us feel sad. For our stifled means of expression, our empty conversations.
Holly's father comes in the way of their relationship, Kit kills him. Before they run away from the town Kit puts a confession of his crime on a record-disk (at one point of which he sighs and says "I'm sorry. I ran out of things to say."), sets the record playing by the portico of Holly's house and burns the place down. They wish to go somewhere North where "people don't ask lots of questions". Kit even persuades Holly to bring her schoolbooks along so she wouldn't "fall behind". Together they escape to a grove of cottonwood beside a river where they build a world for themselves, a place uninterrupted by others. Somewhere close to the beauties of nature. Kit and Holly become Adam and Eve, happy in their isolation. Together they have a good time: reading stories, making love, dancing. Even though they have occasional tiffs like all other couples. Kit even goes ahead and prepares for a possible invasion, giving Holly "lectures on how a gun works" - their world is their fortress. But like the house they burnt down, it falls apart sometime.
Along the way, Kit shoots some more people. He's trigger-happy, which Holly begins to realise ("It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know him at the same time."). Yet she feels a little sorry for him and stays by his side ("I gotta stick by Kit. He feels trapped."). They pick some goods from a rich man's house including a prize trophy and a Cadillac*. Then they cross the Great Plains - the literal badlands of the title.
Why does Malick choose Holly as the narrator, and not Kit? Is it a whimsical decision? I think not. Kit isn't in doubt. He knows he wants to get away from his origins, tear apart his roots, escape from civilization. But Holly is a girl torn between her choices: her craving to get back to town life starts seeping in.
We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there. Kit said that "solitude" was a better word, 'cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say. Whatever the expression, I told him we couldn't go on livin' this way.She isn't sure of her dedication to Kit anymore. Choosing Holly is logical because her indecision goes with the directionless tone of the film, Kit is too one-minded to offer us two choices. Besides, Kit cares too much about his image: we see him rambling about himself many times during conversations, we see him smile when people liken him to Dean. He can't look from the "outside", which Holly can.
The truly sad part in the film is the fallout. The two don't share their loneliness anymore.
He needed me now, more than ever, but something had come between us. I stopped even payin' attention to him. Instead I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth where nobody could read 'em.Malick's sense of imagery is truly marvelous. Someone so lonely she talks to the roof of her mouth. This sadness is capped by that magical interlude when Kit and Holly dance to Nat King Cole's "A Blossom Fell". We've seen them before dancing merrily, when they were in love. Now we see them slowly sway in each other's arms when they aren't. There is an enveloping darkness all around except for the patch where they dance, lit by the Cadillac, and the starlit clear sky at night. Cole's mournful song about dead love and the ambience signal the end of the adventure that started back in Dakota. It is the final graceful showdown of sorts. And it recalls all of a sudden what Kit did when it all started:
Kit made a solemn vow that he would always stand beside me and let nothin' come between us. He wrote this out in writing, put the paper in a box with some of our little tokens and things, then sent it off in a balloon he'd found while on the garbage route.There is a strong streak of fatality running through the film, much like in noirs. Only Kit doesn't want to give in so easy. That is why he fights the lawmen long enough to convince them he can get away, and then surrenders of his own will‡.
His heart was filled with longin' as he watched it drift off. Something must've told him that we'd never live these days of happiness again, that they were gone forever.
The great thing about Badlands is that in some of its moments, it brings us close to Kit and Holly. As in when they have their lovely stay in the woods, or when their loneliness and desperation stands out. At other times, it throws us off guard: unsettling us with scenes of violence against the serene, beautiful backdrop. Some reviewers have commented how Malick has composed a peaceful, heavenly world using cinematography and montage and then suddenly let loose the untamed beast of violence†. Nowhere is it more clearly pronounced than in the burning-of-the-house sequence, where close-up shots of fire (biblical associations with hell) are accompanied by a Christian hymn speaking of the suffering of Christ. In the previous scenes, the same house has been portrayed standing amidst the dreamy, idyllic scenery of Fort Dupree. Standing in the Great Plains and seeing city lights at a distance, Holly exclaims:
The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return. I thought what a fine place it was full of things that people can look into and enjoy.Badlands is a product of its time, a document of social unrest viewed through the lens of two people. America was scarred after the Vietnam war and Watergate. It is interesting to note that Taxi Driver was made in the same period.
Going through Edward Hopper's work yesterday and reading his page on wikipedia, I learnt of his influence on filmmakers (Malick being one whose name is explicitly cited in the note). Here is a painting named Railroad Sunset:
Compare the previous example with the scene where Kit and Holly have to decide which way to head:
Holly: (narrating) Kit took the bottle and spun it around leaving to fate which direction we should take.
Kit: Forget it, it doesn't matter. If I'm worth a damn, I'll pick the right direction. If I'm not, well, I don't care. See what I mean?
Hearing Nat King Cole express the sadness of lost love, Kit says:
If I could sing a song like that... If I could sing a song about the way I feel now it'd be a hit.Cole does what Holly can't: speak his mind.
Malick does a wonderful job on inserting comical interludes. There is the madcap anecdote of a crank:
Holly: (narrating) Did you hear about the guy at the nuthouse that walked around naked except for hat and gloves? And this nurse come up to him and said, "Hey, you can't walk around that way." And the guy says, "Well, it's okay. Nobody comes around here anyway." And the nurse says: "Well what do you have on the hat and gloves for?" And the guy says, "Well, you never know."And there's the gossip mag that Holly reads out.
"Rumor: Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth are in love."The jokes don't really go anywhere, but for a few moments the world of Kit and Holly starts making some sort of sense.
"Fact: True. But not with each other."
True to the nature of the film, the end is ambiguous. The lawman escorting Kit exclaims "You're quite an individual, Kit" (and this we have been seeing all along). Kit replies dryly, "Think they'll take that into consideration."
* The choice of Cadillac is not incidental. It's muscular look dirtied by the sojourn through badlands reminds us of the tarnished masculinity of the post-war years, as witnessed in the anti-hero archetype of film-noir (think Johnny Clay of The Killing, Walter Neff of Double Indemnity, Dix Handley of The Asphalt Jungle, Jef Costello of Le Samourai or numerous other similar characters).
‡ Recall Jef Costello's maneuvre in Le Samourai. He knows he must surrender at some point but he fights against odds to assert his control of fate. Then he plots his own downfall meticulously.
† When Hitchcock made Shadow of a Doubt, he said he wanted to bring violence right where it belonged: the household. Malick's film is an update of the same idea: the home here being the world. He captures wild animals, plants, and flowers with the care and loving detail of a wildlife photographer. He composes the shots on the Great Plains such that the brilliance of the sky contrasts the dirtstrewn wasteland in the bottom half of the frame. Cut to the scene where Cato, Kit's pal from the garbage route, is shot. It seems as if the bullet's hitting us (reminding us of the visceral visual technique of a later Cronenberg film, Videodrome).