To celebrate the debut of Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning film, The Tree of Life, Cinémezzo, with the help of some guest contributors, is taking a look back at his four features Badlands; Days of Heaven; The Thin Red Line; and The New World, all of which contain in their sounds and images the ebb and flow of life and time.
“I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died”
- Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”
Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is an aimless young man just about scraping by as a garbageman whose life changes irrevocably when he meets 15-year old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). The two fall in love, despite the ten-year age gap between them, and spend their days talking about life, death and existence. Then Holly’s father (Warren Oates) finds out about their relationship and tries to put a stop to it, so Kit shoots him dead and burns his house down. This sends Kit and and Holly out on a journey that takes them from their home in South Dakota to the Badlands of Montana, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Apart from his almost unseen short, Lanton Mills, and several years as a screenwriter for hire (working on, amongst other films, Dirty Harry) Badlands was the world’s introduction to Terrence Malick. Like many debuts, Badlands is both an aberration and an indicator of what was to come; it is noticeably different from his later work, but there are just enough similarities for there to be a clear development from one project to the next. It’s easily Malick’s most linear and accessible film, with nothing approaching the elliptical narratives of his later films like Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Though there are some telltale shots of nature, they are few and are not at the forefront of the work; rather than serving as a riposte to the violence that Kit metes out, the endless landscapes serve primarily as backdrops for his and Holly’s story to play out against.
Yet even at such an early stage in his career, Malick established himself as a unique talent, and the film emerges as an assured and cohesive statement. Despite a troubled shoot which saw Malick lose not one but two cinematographers who refused to work with him, crucial equipment being damaged during the scene in which Holly’s house burns down and the departure of almost the entire crew towards the end of shooting (the film was supposedly completed by a skeleton crew consisting of Malick, his then-wife Jill Jakes and a local high school student), the resultant film is a dazzling, beguiling work that tackles grand themes like love, the loss of innocence and the nature of storytelling with a maturity and insight that is astonishing.
Loosely based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his 14-year old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands is narrated by Holly, who describes her journey with Kit as a kind of romantic fairytale. As far as she is concerned, theirs is a love that rivals Romeo and Juliet’s, and there is a wide-eyed innocence to Holly’s interpretation of her situation that speaks volumes about how little she understands Kit’s actions. Holly’s cold, detached descriptions of their time together give the film a cold, detached feel that is complemented perfectly by Malick’s camera, which favours wide shots of the two against the grand vistas of the Midwest, and his choice of music. The piece “Gassenhauer” by Carl Orff, which was used to such iconic effect that Hans Zimmer used it as the basis for his score for Tony Scott’s True Romance, itself a spin on Badlands, gives the film a whimsical quality that is completely at odds with the actual story, yet is perfect for Holly’s own spin on the tale.
The idea of Badlands as a kind of fairytale is especially interesting when we consider the way in which Holly’s view of what she and Kit are doing changes over time. The rush of giddy excitement that comes with adolescent love, a feeling so strong that it can convince someone as naive as Holly that staying with Kit, who she describes as the “most trigger happy” person she knows, is a good idea, wanes as she becomes more aware of the wrongness of their actions.
In my favourite moment in the film, she describes their infamy in relation to incidents of schools employing armed guards, people leaving their lights on at night and the police bringing in a “famous detective” from Boston to track them down. These details all have the heightened feel of a child exaggerating details of a story to sound more impressive, but they also suggest that Holly is aware of the kind of bogeymen that she and Kit have become. If their life is a fairytale, then they have become the monster that must be slain to protect the town.
All this plays into Badlands‘ most fascinating theme; the ways in which people create their own legends. Several times in the film, Kit is referred to as looking like James Dean, and he comports himself like he is the star of his own biopic. As Kit, Martin Sheen delivers his lines with a laconic, affected cool that he has clearly learned from hours watching Dean and other movie stars on the silver screen. (The ease with which Sheen slips into the role of a Dean surrogate is probably as much down to Sheen’s own obsession – he has always cited Dean as one of his chief inspirations as an actor – as the story itself.) In fact, both Holly and Kit at times act like people who have only learned how to behave through watching movies – during the climactic car chase, Kit checks his hair in the mirror to make sure that he looks just right for when the police catch him; Holly’s response to Kit gunning her father down is to slap Kit like she’s the fatale in a film noir. Given their youth and the late ’50s setting of the film, this is entirely possible; Kit and Holly are part of one first or second generation to grow up in a culture in which cinema is the dominant artform.
Viewed this way, more or less everything that Kit says and does in film can be seen as part of his attempt to create The Legend of Kit Carruthers. When Kit and Holly take a rich man and his maid hostage, Kit sits down and records a message on the man’s dictaphone about the nature of his crimes in which he downplays the significance of their actions, putting them down to the actions of two kids having fun, but clearly hoping that people will listen to it later and analyse the words to try to find some greater meaning. When caught, he tells the arresting officers that they have acted as heroes, and that he will speak of them that way when they get to town. As far as Kit is concerned, they have now become part of his legend. Even after he is caught, Kit hands his possessions out to police officers and talks to them like he’s a movie star addressing his adoring public.
Even the manner in which he is caught is a carefully considered act of myth-making since he shoots out his own tyre, then waits around for the police to catch up. The film gives no explicit explanation for this act, but since Kit lies about it later by saying that he stopped because he got a flat tyre and didn’t fight because he ran out of bullets, the idea that he is creating the story of his own life is reinforced tenfold. It is better that he be captured through bad luck or the conspiring hand of fate than through the police’s success or his own mistakes.
Ultimately, Kit’s legend becomes real. One of the policemen that captures him remarks, in wonder, that Kit is no bigger than he is, in that moment suggesting the kind of mythic figure that Kit has become in the minds of ordinary people. In doing so, the film mirrors the real cultural impact of Charles Starkweather, whose crimes shocked America and have reverberated through its culture over the last 50 years in Badlands, Natural Born Killers, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, and countless other works which have sought to either examine or exploit the killings.
Malick doesn’t offer any concrete explanation for why Kit (or Starkweather, or the countless others who have commited similar acts) would go out and start killing people, but the closest he comes to doing so comes right after Kit is arrested. As he is riding in the police car with the officers who arrested him, one of them asks Kit why he did what he did. After a brief period of consideration, Kit replies:
“I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess.”
It’s a chilling moment that captures the sense of isolation and loneliness that someone like Kit, growing up in the middle of nowhere with no prospects, cut off from the mainstream of American life, might feel, but there’s also something romantic about it. It conjures up the image of the tragic criminal whose name lives on long after he has been caught or killed. The greatest legacy of Kit Carruthers has nothing to do with the people he murdered, or the immediate grief of their families, but with the untold thousands who had had no direct contact with, but who were terrified by his mere existence. That’s a legend.
Edwin Davies is a writer and critic based in Sheffield, England. He is the editor of the film and culture site A Mighty Fine Blog, the television writer for Hope Lies at Twenty-Four Frames a Second and a contributor to Box Office Prophets. He can be found on Twitter here.