When I checked for 1973 movies and saw Badlands, I knew I had to take it. I had never seen it before, but how I could not use the opportunity for watching Terence Malick’s first movie? I really liked all of his movies I have seen up to now and I really had been wanting to see Badlands for a while. Anyway, it is definitely a good and fascinating movie. It worked better for me in the first half than in the last, but overall the story of those two young people drifting through the U.S. is worth watching and is not at all the way you would expect it. The images are beautiful and haunting and even if you think you’ve seen all of Malick’s insertion of nature images, I always find it powerful. Early on, he shows this holistic view of the world and you see that in Badlands as much as you see it in The Tree of Life thirty years later. The acting is great, the music is excellent (I had an epiphany when I realized that my favorite music from True Romance is no original Hans Zimmer score, but a classical track by Orff that Malick used in his spiritual predecessor to True Romance. I never knew…) and increases this strange, dream-like, melancholy atmosphere that accompanies ever killing and escape from civilization. I’m not sure about the ending of the movie because I felt similar to Sissy Spacek’s character in the end, which made it harder to engage with the movie.
Phew, after this long introduction (sometimes the actual review part demands more than it gets here), let’s look at what the movie offers in relation zeitgeist and civilization. Interestingly, this is the third movie from 1973 I picked that is not actually set in 1973. Of the three, this matters the least here, as the movie seems timeless. The opening on the streets of a small town could be the 50s or the 70s and they certainly look like the same streets where the kids from The Tree of Life grow up. But no matter if on those streets our out in the wilderness, animals, plants, both alive and dead are around the characters all the time. It puts all the things the characters do in another context, making their actions seems somewhat pointless. Then again, especially Holly (Sissy Spacek) seems to be more open for observing other lifeforms.
It becomes clear quickly that both Holly and Kit (Martin Sheen, full of eerie energy) have no real place in this world. Kit walks on and off pointless jobs as he likes and never seems to feel at home anywhere. Holly is held back by her overprotective father. Both are very detached from their emotions, most of the time noticing what happens around them with not much of a reaction. They are in love, they say, but there is no passion. They seem to find each other, someone to accompany them through a world they don’t really understand. They don’t know what to do or where to go, but when they are together they feel “away from all the cares of the world.” When they have sex for the first time, there is nothing seen in their faces. They seem disappointed, detached, unfazed. Here is their post-coital dialogue (near a tree, by a river):
Holly: “Did it go the way t’was supposed to?”
Holly: “Is that all there is to it?”
Holly: “Gosh, what was everybody talking about?”
Kit: “Don’t ask me.”
Holly: “Well, I’m glad it’s over. For a while, was afraid I might die before it happened.”
They are longing to get away from everything, from the expectations (there is a moment when her father paints a huge ad, a perfect house for a perfect family, but one big piece is missing – that moment Kit walks up to him), and through the first murder, they have a reason to escape their world. They build their own world in a forest, just the two of them, with a massive tree house complex, where they live through hunting and gathering. Still, while they seem to enjoy this somewhat, there is also few emotions at display here, especially between the two of them. They enjoy being isolated from the rest of the world, but that doesn’t make their escape necessarily a romance. Some images of Kit running around with a gun through the forest are suggestive of Vietnam even, but that might be Martin Sheen’s fault. Still, their dream also ends in violence.
In the end, their distance grows bigger, but they still have a hard time letting go of each other. Holly becomes more and more aware of Kit’s violent tendencies and it turns her off. Again, what connects these two is their desire to escape and since they share that, they stick with each other in their little fantasy. Holly is not forced to go with him and she doesn’t really let him tell her that much. What connects them, more than anything else, is that they see the world around them, all the beauty, even in death. The way the movie fills the screen with those breathtaking images, forces you to look at them, too, to see that we’re a part of it and that it is possible to live with that world. I know this sounds corny, but if you see those images and don’t feel anything, detachment might creep up on you, too. Kit and Holly are detached people, from their emotions and each other, but they let the world into their hearts, with all its violence, magnificence, wonder and darkness.