A Complete And Utter Spoiler Of Terrence Malick's 1973 "Badlands"
Terrence Malick directed Badlands, which came out in 1973 when I was no more than a few months old and busy rubbing my dark, curly birth hair out into a fading, blonde mohawk.
The movie is based on the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, a romantic pairing of a nineteen-year-old man and a fourteen-year old girl who fell through the cracks and slid haphazardly into a murder spree that began with a gas station attendant and Caril's immediate family and involved several other victims before a high speed police chase brought it to an end. Starkweather and Fugate's frightening adventure has inspired more than a few films, such as my beloved Badlands, as well as David Lynch's Wild At Heart, Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott's True Romance, Dominic Sena's Kalifornia, Robert Markowitz's Murder In The Heartland, C. M. Talkington's Love And A .45, and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.
The Palinode introduced me to Badlands a few years ago, and rarely have I been so drawn into a film. I studied the youthful faces of of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen from thirty years before, their lean bodies, the low affect of their speech and facial expressions. What initially came off as flatness turned into space for my imagination to roam and carry me in as an active participant in the film's creation, and that is exactly how it feels when I watch it again. And again. I co-create within the film's broad space and sense of silence.
When the movie opens, Kit (Martin Sheen) is a garbageman who gets his footwear from wealthier people's alleys. Holly (Sissy Spacek) is the motherless daughter of a sign painter in her early teens who takes music lessons and twirls a baton.
(All of the following images are digital photographs of my television while I was watching Badlands last weekend. I know that I could have taken stills directly from the disc, but my disc drive is non-functional, so you will just have to deal with the blur and the wavy lines.)
These opening scenes tell us that the film does not take place in the present day, because Holly is out twirling her baton in the middle of the street without fear of being run over, and Kit is pulling off that James Dean, white-t-shirt-and-jeans, sauntering kind of look.
Kit approaches the guileless Holly of the short shorts and chats her up a little. He plays shy and she plays standoffish, but eventually they walk down the road together.
She tells Kit that her father does not want her to date him, because he is a garbageman, so Kit tells her that he knows a lot about other people's garbage, and what does her old man know about it anyway. She agrees.
I do not know what her old man is so uptight about. It's not like his job as a sign painter is so high up on the economic scale. Unless it is. I could be wrong.
I missed taking pictures of their lackluster courtship, but there are scenes of them having picnics and kissing outside in nature, which I think is supposed to impress upon us the naturalness and outsider status of their relationship. Moving characters into nature from the controlled conditions of urban life often means that they are more wild, less tameable, and outside the usual order of things. It hints at chaos.
Anyway, despite how bored they look all the time, even during their first conversation after he has taken her virginity, you know that they are bound together, at least in Kit's mind, because he takes a rock from the place where they had sex by which to remember their act of love. He takes a piece of the wildness with them.
Oh yeah, so, Kit comes by to get Holly from her house one day and shoots her father. Then, he pours gasoline all over the inside of the house and sets it on fire while playing a record he made in which he explains that they are responsible and have gone off to kill themselves, which they have not. He is trying to cover his tracks.
They go live in a thinly wooded forest in a treehouse where they live off the land. Holly starts to dress slightly more grown up and dances with him to music.
I also missed a shot of when Kit kills bounty hunters that have found their little forest hideaway, but I think he kills two of them. Maybe three.
Holly and Kit take off to see an old family friend of Kit's. Kit gives him a live chicken as a present, which confuses me, because shortly afterward he shoots the guy in the belly for what seems like no good reason. Kit and Holly sit with the man for many hours while he slowly dies of his bullet wound. How thoughtful of them.
They have to get away from their latest crime scene, so Kit pulls over a car with a pair of teenaged lovers in it, forces them into a storm cellar, locks them inside, shoots a couple of bullets through the door, and steals their car. It is not clear if the couple is harmed or not. It does not seem to matter, though, because we are in the midst of swiftly rising action on our way to the climax.
They come across a large house and force their way in via a deaf maid and hold her and the rich owner of the home hostage. Kit plays with a dictaphone and records his wisdom for living a good life, and a lot of his advice is actually pretty good, so you feel a little bad for him that he has allowed circumstances to turn himself into such a psychopath.
They steal supplies and the rich man's car, and they drive off through a great expanse of nothingness, a terrain with no defining features, because Kit and Holly do not know what they are doing aside from moving forward.
See? They did it again. Their entrance into nature shows how lost and skewed they are.
Again, it is in the wildness of nature that their romance blossoms again. When they dance together in the dark by the side of the road, you know that they are bound together until the end, and that, in a way, this is all they will ever be: two lost individuals without a human tie to this earth aside from each other, waiting for the inevitable.
Is that an oil well they are next to? If not, it is something like that, because they steal gas from places like that to fuel their stolen car.
This time, though, the jig is up, because a helicopter swoops in. Holly is tired of running and chooses to stay where she is.
Kit, of course, hops in the car. He is in it until the bitter end. It is his only destiny. He and the police engage in a high speed chase. We are at the climax!
Kit knows it is time to give himself up, so he pulls the car over and builds a little pile out of rocks to commemorate the event. He is big on using rocks to remember things. Again, this is supposed to make us see his connection to nature and, therefore, his wild lawlessness and free spirit.
I love how he so naturally accepts his fame when all the military and police guys are in awe of him. He stands so coolly on the wing of that airplane handing out his personal effects as though they are highly esteemed mementos. You can tell that all the law enforcement men think that Kit is pretty cool.
Kit and Holly are allowed one last conversation before they are taken away from each other. It does not feel overly sad, or even very emotional, because this whole thing was inevitable. They did not expect anything else, even though Kit did dream of crossing the border into Saskatchewan. Dreams of the future were not for them, only the moments in which they were.
The doting crowd of military and law men crowd around to see Kit off, and we are treated to a long shot of Kit in the plane.
He and Holly are no more. The closing voiceover narrative tells us that Kit is put to death six months later and Holly marries the son of the lawyer who defended her.
The thing that is so great about this film is that I can tell you all that, but you have no idea how strong a roll the musical score plays, or how much the inferred quiet affects your involvement in the film, or how the story allows you to feel like you understand the so-called necessity of Kit and Holly's actions.
In short, it is good, and you should watch it.
The End, again.
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