Terrence Malick didn’t crash into the film-world – he stumbled into it, but the impression he left wouldn’t convey the truth of it. A philosophy student at Harvard who studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, he went on to teach at MIT after a petty disagreement with his advisor while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (although in the world of philosophy, everything and nothing is petty). At some point along the way, he decided he felt like making a movie, and the world was never the same. That film, 1973’s Badlands, is so stunningly like every other kids-on-the-run crime film from the American New Wave from a distance, it’s almost comical. But from up-close (or even medium distance), it’s so glaringly apparent that Badlands is the antithesis of the films it’s often compared to (ahem, Bonnie and Clyde) that the initial comparison seems so superficial as to not even be worth noting. Badlands is unlike any film from the period, and American cinema more genuinely. It is a singular experience, and a towering, titanic one.
Malick is a director who inspires so much passion both positive and negative that it’s an eternal challenge to keep a piece on one of his films at a reasonable length (thus, I can’t promise I’ll try my best). This is particularly true for Badlands, despite being itself a rather stately 90-or-so minutes. Few filmmakers can stew together emotion and intellect like Malick – his films are resolutely composed and in some cases clinical, yet they breathe and sway with a melancholy haunt. They’re works to get lost in, yet he’s always behind the scenes constructing everything like a swaying tapestry. If the story of the film – that of two youth in the Mid-West (Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, and Kit played Martin Sheen) who choose a life on the run rather than existence within society – sounds familiar, it has never been explored in Malick’s world.
Where the film truly stakes its greatness and flies in the face of any semblance of American filmic storytelling is in its totalistic and completely emblazoned disinterest. The film’s main characters, right up until the finale, are so busy self-consciously searching for an image of life, that of the rugged outsiders romantically struggling against the odds, they forget the real thing. Any semblance of soul is sucked clean from their existence. Take Kit, a man who opens the film emulating a James Dean type gangster figure, yet doesn’t ever even attempt an ounce of Dean’s effervescent life. It’s no surprise that he “went to sleep in the courtroom while his confession (and death sentence) was being read”.
The languid, ever-present, affectlessness is more notable with Holly though. The film is subsumed within her narration, an innocent drivel which emphasizes unimportant detail and explores important detail like she’s forgotten the whole thing years later. It’s as if she’s literally reading her lines from a script. The narration is bone-dry, a hyperbolic realization of the melodramatic artifice of the narration and its open-faced expression of what ought to be left implied. When Spacek’s character speaks in the film’s present, she sounds like she can’t be bothered, a walking shell of a person. The most telling moment, to my mind, comes when she reflects on her first time having sex; post-coital, she sounds like she just woke up from a nap, or a coma.
This is all not to say that both figures are badly acted. Quite the contrary; both performances are stunning, but they are stunningly realized portrayals of two very specific emotions that are antithetical to the conventional logic of how one ought to inhabit a human character. But Holly and Kit aren’t humans. They’re walking material that could’ve formed humanity, but instead chose to pursue a fictional construct as far as it would take them.
And then we have the film’s violence, which happens often but in the most mundane, there-and-over matter possible. It arrives un-staged, and leaves without affect. For these two, the killing isn’t something they fear or abhor, nor is it, as with Bonnie and Clyde, a coital act. It’s something scarier: no different from waking up in the morning. They react with mild-mannered indifference – Holly usually just sits there. It’s part of their daily script, their everyday understanding of “how to be a criminal”. They never bothered to figure out if they wanted to be one or felt anything at all about it. They perform like the worst actors in the world precisely because their roles are that of two teenagers putting on a stage-play version of Bonnie and Clyde without bothering to think about why, or to care. The actors aren’t bad at conveying character – the characters are bad actors. And if the violence of a Scorsese film (for example) scares us with its grotesque immediacy, Malick’s haunts us with its soul-deadened malaise.
The film’s narrative, meanwhile, follows suit: it isn’t one. Composed rather resolutely in a series of structured sequences very much set off from one another, the free-flowing aura of the film belies its rather pointed clinical formality. The transitions lack emotion, and the film doesn’t so much ebb and flow as it stands around in a constant monotone. The characters neither evolve nor devolve. Any other New Waver would latch onto their pulsing “struggle” to exist, but Malick sees no flesh, no pulses to fight with. It’s as if they are sleep-walking, lost in Malick’s painterly vision to the point of dreaming through what they could have lived. The very film then operates as a critique of this vision, a critique of the very love of the American West Malick clearly adores here, a wide-open expanse which doesn’t so much destroy as it leaves barren. Insofar as we may get lost in the film’s imagery, we are as susceptible as Kit and Holly to the dreamlike mist of the American West, and Malick isn’t about to let us forget that.
But Terrence Malick is not a director of plot or character – he is a man of the visual, and the emotional experience of a Malick film is very much its crystalline, elegiac composition, in stark contrast to the fiery, unfussy naturalism of most famous American New Wave films. Visually, the film is defined by contrast. On one hand, it’s gorgeous in a way that is undeniably fascinated with, and lost in, American Western iconography. The film rather lovingly gives us a sense of poetic melancholy to float around in, exactly as Kit and Holly do. Yet, at the same time, it is all rather intellectually composed, with rigid, un-moving lines defining and boxing off the backdrop, sometimes pushing the visuals from poetic Americana to battles of abstract color. That it appears both wistful and mournful only to reveal a sort of arch-composition and rigidity draws us into precisely the trap Kit and Holly stutter into – fawning over something as a product of nature and romantic beauty when it is in reality coldly in-human (Malick finds no sanity for the two in nature, just as he finds none in “society”). His film is static, composed, and harshly lined. Even when the camera does move it always uses lateral, deliberate movements that don’t so much free us up as lock us down on a set forward path we can not break from. It is a camera for Kit and Holly. It is a trapped camera, and a camera that does the trapping.
Films that tackle the theme of Americana lovers on the run typically go for one of two styles – arch-realism or slightly fantastical realism (Bonnie and Clyde occupies a grounds between the two). Malick throws both ideas out of the way and gives modern American cinema its first truly great work of impressionism. Insofar as his films favor the unconscious sensory over the physical reality, he is not only impressionist but likely the most impressionist major director ever (certainly in American cinema). His films do not so much draw us into their reality as paint them from a distance, having us look on and see the broad strokes rendered as blurry details for the senses. They question the very capacity to understand the West, to believe the patented American myth of uprooting oneself, eschewing social propriety, and pursuing an individualist dreamscape akin to the classical image of Western individualism. They construct an America deeply entwined with the addictive, parochial imagery of reenacting its own fantasies of the past, and in doing, an America that precludes itself from living in the present.
Particularly in light of the dramatic throughway of the American New Wave, that of brutal and direct films demanding to be heard with a gritty punch to the gut, the fact that Malick chooses to sit by and linger is about the most radical thing he could have done. It’s as if he’s rendering an anti-New Wave film, a work which takes everything that was exciting about those other films and intentionally flattens them out and shaves the edges off. In doing so, he finds the sharpest, most punishing cuts of all.
This pseudo-pacificness is the essence of Badlands. Because its characters would rather exist as affectless, or flately affected, performances than ever attain roundness, they chase after a static image that whittles them down and locks them away from growth or emotion. And the film must displace its rhapsodic roundedness of feeling on its world rather than its characters, not merely turning to the cliche of “place as a character” but actively preferring its mise-en-scene as the character very consciously set against any other character the film offers. In doing so, it constantly suggests life as an ethereal, ghostly out-of-body experience rather than a from-the-trenches realization of self-hood; it is a treatise on the inability of humans to truly know their own selves from within.
This self-conscious dramatic limitedness that persists all the way down is a startling critique of American violence as a mundane performance of desensitization, of becoming so used to playing a “type” that it no longer effects us on any level beyond the functional. If his film happens to contain no small portion of life’s mysteries and huge, gaping morsels of sensory wisdom on the human experience – well for Malick film was always his way of taking the famously didactic field of philosophy and rendering it a world of pure emotion. If this was ever his goal, this is his flattened-out manifesto.