“Kit made a solemn vow that he would always stand beside me and let nothing 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. His heart was filled with longing 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.” A director’s first film is usually something special. Time was spent developing the idea, crafting the story, finding the right performers, fighting for funding and eventual distribution. The first time usually involves hunkering down and devoting oneself slavishly to the idyllic notion that one day the director’s vision would see the light of day. Almost nobody really directs their first film on a whim or by chance. Filmmaking doesn’t usually work like that. It’s hard work. It involves a wide variety of people. It takes guts and devotion; especially if the film is both written and directed by the same person. That usually means there’s a vision at work. Something is being said. Of course, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, particularly in the horror genre, that first film is simply about proving it can be done. But I’d bet everything that while the work is being done, even the most commercial of first-timers has something to say; even if it’s just “see what I can do with your money. Give me more so I can do something bigger and better.” 1973 saw the release of the Terrence Malick‘s debut feature film, Badlands. Coming five years after Arthur Penn‘s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (Penn helped out in the financing, lending his name to the project to help establish some legitimacy), the film touches on similar subject matter, but takes a dramatically different approach. While also taking a true-crime inspiration (this time from the nineteen-year-old spree killerCharles Starkweather and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate), Malick’s story was much less romanticized than Penn’s but still maintained a fairy tale-like quality. Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) were decidedly not anti-heroes cut from the same cloth as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty‘s Bonnie and Clyde, but instead reflected a more honest and unnerving simple sociopathy that immediately put audiences on edge and reflected a vision of youth filtered through the Johnson administration’s escalation of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration’s pull-out. It’s this vision of youth and young love in particular that really makes Badlands resonate and disturb. Malick’s narrative is approached through the eyes of Holly, who narrates in a childlike, romance novel sort of prose, reflecting the near-sociopathic innocence that first love can inspire. Because of this, we never really get insight into Kit’s inner workings, and because of this he remains the enigma at the heart of the film. We only get to watch him as he swings from big-grinned doofus, to trigger-happy gunman, to emotionally stunted man-child, and back again and again. It’s no wonder this was a star-making role for Sheen. He embodies a lean, cat-like nervous calm that can suddenly explode into only partially-understood violence. And Spacek is pitch-perfect with an almost flat-affect response to Kit’s violent swings. They’re frightening for the simple reason that there seems to be no detailed psychological workings underneath. The lovers drift and respond to stimuli. They’re every parent’s worst nightmare: normal on the outside, devastatingly empty on the inside. With nothing else special about him, Kit has a strange sense of pride in the attention he garners. When captured by the police, he says casually, “Name’s Carruthers. Believe I shoot people every now and then. Not that I deserve a medal.” This statement says volumes about the psychology of the character. He’s a celebrity and he knows it. The pride he takes in looking like James Dean and the joy he takes in fielding questions from the National Guard about trivialities is a damning example of foresight on Malick’s part. Kit represents the folk-hero aspect of earlier anti-heroes but filtered through the vapidity of celebrity in a way that presciently resonates with today’s media landscape. It’s an idea that Oliver Stone will explode into surreal levels of absurdity in Natural Born Killers, working from a script from Quentin Tarantino. But Malick isn’t interested in excess. He’s preoccupied with grounding Kit’s actions in an existential banality and exposing them to the wondrous vistas of the Badlands. By situating Kit and Holly’s emptiness against the amazing natural landscapes, he’s situating our existential absence in the vastness of the natural world. We are small and our actions are meaningless to the world around us. We scramble to find love – the sort of love we only know through books and movies – while desperately seeking some sort of meaning or experience or value outside of ourselves. This is why Holly’s narration is so florid and poetic, yet lacking in depth and insight. She’s trying to create meaning through love and madness, but simply lacks the capacity to transcend the trivialities of her life – with even the murders becoming trivial as the story progresses. This is what lies at the heart of nearly all of the films we’ll be discussing in this column. The desperate living that is young, mad love: Amour Fou. Because despite everything I’ve written above, there’s still just something goddamn attractive about these characters. And the reason becomes clearer when we look at their time in the treehouse. After Kit has murdered Holly’s father, the two of them burn down her home and leave a recorded “suicide note” for the police to find. They know it won’t convince anyone, but it’s not supposed to. It’s all about buying time to escape. And they escape to an idyllic oasis in the woods, where together they build a treehouse, dance, fish, occasionally argue, make up, build traps, and practice shooting their guns. There’s a natural tranquility to this sequence that is absent from the rest of the film, as the young lovers are at one with the world around them. Holly says, “I grew to love the forest. The cooing of the doves and the hum of dragonflies in the air made it always seem lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone. When the leaves rustled overhead, it was like the spirits were whispering about all the little things that bothered ’em.” Is there any purer feeling of love than that? To feel satisfied and happy with the rest of the world dead and gone; two lovers alone to inherit the earth? It’s the simple and pure life of the innocent – right down to Kit’s use of violence to protect them from the inevitable bounty hunters (bounty hunters don’t deserve a chance to defend themselves in Kit’s view, as they’re only interested in money). However, from the moment he pops up from his hiding place and shoots them all dead, that tranquility is over. They are on the run for real this time, and they both know that there’s only one way it can end. And Kit wouldn’t hesitate to kill to keep them both free and together. Of course, it’s sociopathic and morally reprehensible. We’re all moral creatures and don’t believe that offhand violence is a positive thing. But it’s so fucking romantic and pure in its childlike intensity. Holly explains Kit’s rationale at one point: “He claimed that as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses. You had to take the consequences, though, and not whine about it later.” You had to take the consequences. Yes, Kit is a reflex killer, but he knows that when the game is over, he’ll pay the price. Which means that there’s a logic at work, but it’s a madman’s logic; or a superman’s, if we consider where this logic places the average Joe on the street. In this equation, there’s Kit and Holly vs The Law, and that conflict is one of power and respect. He’s not going to kill a cop unless he absolutely has to, and ultimately, the police are more interested in him as a trophy than as a statistic. Everyone else, though, is expendable; a victim in waiting. Which brings us back that that existential abyss at the heart of Badlands. Malick refuses to approach this story from a moralistic point of view. While even the anti-heroes of Bonnie and Clyde were presented as immoral in a moral world, Kit and Holly exist in an amoral civilized world filled with emptiness and death. The only beauty is in nature and the childish innocence of their love for each other. Everyone in this film is just passing time, waiting to die. In that sense, Kit becomes a force of nature, pure in his love and pure in his murder. He’s practically doing his victims a favor. In the end, though, young love dies – In this case, in the electric chair. But not before Kit donates his body to science, because goddammit, he was thoughtful like that. Holly survives, and in an offhand comment notes that she eventually married the son of her defense attorney. Is there any more potent way to say that the freedom and love of her youth was dead than that? I don’t think so. See larger image Badlands (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] Badlands announced the arrival of a major talent: Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven). His impressionistic take on the notorious Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate killing spree of the late 1950s uses a serial-killer narrative as a springboard for an oblique teenage romance, lovingly and idiosyncratically enacted by Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now) and Sissy Spacek (Carrie). The film also introduced many of the elements that would earn Malick his passionate following: the enigmatic approach to narrative and character, the unusual use of voice-over, the juxtaposition of human violence with natural beauty, the poetic investigation of American dreams and nightmares. This debut has spawned countless imitations, but none have equaled its strange sublimity. New From: $24.50 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses John E. Meredith April 24, 2016 Great words, great column. Everyone is waiting around to die, but Kit is a force of nature. Somewhere in the early 90s I ran away to Florida with a girl I thought I was in love with and lovers-on-the-run movies were briefly my favorite genre ever. I can’t wait to see where else you go with this. Great beginning, man. Log in to Reply Paul Brian McCoy April 24, 2016 Thanks! That means a lot coming from you! Next up, Gun Crazy! Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.