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Cinophile: BADLANDS

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A love-struck couple on the run from the law is not a new theme. The historical benchmark were the robber-murderers Bonny and Clyde, a pair who have been celebrated and scrutinised by movies ever since. Their wild story also inspired other copycats, notable the killing spree by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in late 1950s USA. That pair’s ordeal has also been captured by numerous movies, but the fictionalised treatment it got through Badlands changed the movie world itself.

Badlands is a curious beast for its time. Its two main characters are 25-year old Kit (played by a perhaps too-old Martin Sheen) and his 15-year old girlfriend Holly (played by Sissy Spacek). The pair of outsiders grow closer, until Holly’s father intervenes. Kit murders the man and the pair head onto the road to try and outrun the law. They hope to carve a little place out in the world for themselves, but between Kit’s unstable personality and Holly’s wide-eyed naivety, things don’t work out at all as planned.

If this sounds like a million ‘couple on the run’ plots, it’s at least partly because of the genre’s saturation. But fans of True Romance and Natural Born Killers will also immediately see the influence of Badlands. Unlike many other such movies, there isn’t a sensational bent to this film. It never pushes the audience to decide if they are rooting for or against the couple. This is accomplished in several ways.

It’s foremost a very deadpan movie. From the dialogue to the locations and the cinematography, there is an air of almost mundane listlessness, as if Badlands has no meaning. This lack of meaning acts to empower the character motivations, to make the audience sense and feel why the couple are so desperate to flee their lives.

Badlands also doesn’t give queues to love or hate characters. Holly’s dad is not a bad guy and his murder is unwarranted. In fact, pretty much everyone killed in this didn’t deserve to die – or even have bad things happen to them. Yet at the same time Kit, the killer, isn’t a bad guy either. Though the movie doesn’t try to motivate him too much, there is something familiar and disarming about his musings, his unstable moral code and his general dissatisfaction with the world. It’s pretty much impossible to be appalled with his character, even though he is clearly in the wrong. Even Holly, the naive teenage girl, lends an eerie calmness with her acceptance of the situation and her ever-present dry narration – as if she’s recalling the story months after it happened. Yet the movie doesn’t try to make you like them, either. Kit is clearly not right in the head and his killing pattern makes little sense. Holly is overbearing and painfully immature. But this just makes them feel more like real people.

Critics have said Badlands has a bit too much going on and as such tends to not tidy thing sup at the end. That is fair – it does sorta just lumber into an unexpected conclusion, something its contemporaries and imitators have avoided. But this lack of cohesion and clarity is also what makes Badlands stand out. It doesn’t try to create a world of heroes and villains. It doesn’t even try to craft the idea of an orderly and sensible world, something all too many movies attempt. Badlands just is, which perhaps makes it the scariest of its genre. To it, the difference between a law-abiding citizen and a killer is sometimes just a matter of their outlook and how far they are willing to take that.

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Badlands was the directorial debut of Terrence Malick, then age 29. He would later rise to international fame with The Thin Red Line and Tree Of Life. But Badlands received little awards attention, though it made an impact with critics. It briefly overshadowed Martin Scorcese’s debut film Mean Streets.
Sissy Spacek, who would later rise to fame in movies such as Carrie, called Badlands one of the most important of her career, saying it influenced how she approached movies ever since. Martin Sheen said that it was the best script he had read in all of his career, which is what won him over to audition. But the shoot itself was a notorious nightmare, not the least because Malick kept fighting with the crew – leading many to quit.
Malick was focused enough on details that he hired Martin Sheen because the actor did a good likeness of James Dean – the character Kit is obsessed with Dean. This despite Sheen being too old to appear 25-years old. The reclusive director would mostly interact with his cast through notes and brief conversations, though he did one day rub dirt onto Sheen because he was too clean for the character. Malick also reluctantly was a stand-in for a no-show extra. He wanted to reshoot the scene without him, but Sheen refused to.
Tony Scott, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone have all paid homage to Badlands. Tarantino penned the scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers, both which borrow from Badlands. Both Scott and Stone, who directed the two movies, placed hints of Badlands in their production. Scott went even further and had Hans Zimmer recompose the Badlands theme Gassenhauer into the theme for True Romance, You’re So Cool.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: June 15, 2015

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