Badlands (Malick, 1973)

Evidently inspired by the French New Wave, and recent American films like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands take cues from these films. Not only in content, the story of a young couple on the run from the law, but also in it’s use of narration, dream-like cinematography and highlighting the effects of film and celebrity on youth.

What for me at least, distinguishes the film from it’s predecessors is it’s slackened pace. While in films like Breathless, and to a certain extent Jules et Jim or Cleo 5 a 7, are hardly fast paced I would characterize them as feeling energized and full of life. Badlands on the other hand is almost lazy, it feels like a hot summer day where you just lie nearly asleep in the sun. It’s absent of strong emotions, and even real direction. The pace and editing reflects this sense of detachment, and like most of Malick’s films Badlands can be defined by mood more than anything else.

The film handled the cult of celebrity in a very subdued way. Holly yearns for acceptance, while Kit wants to be noticed. She’s taken in by his Hollywood good looks, and he takes pride in the James Dean comparisons. Both express a strong desire to tell their story, Holly does this with the film’s narration which plays as honest and reflective diary entries and at every opportunity Kit is recording himself trying to not only tell his version of events but form his own destiny. His conversations with Holly suggest someone with a lack of understanding about the world and it’s consequences, he gingerly believes that if he gets past the border all his troubles will end and maybe he could even be a Mountie. Holly tries to remind him that they’ll probably ask for his driver’s license, but this doesn’t deter him. Even as he’s eventually captured there is always this sense he doesn’t truly understand his situation, as if he is outside looking in. He never protests, he never whines, and there never is any indication he’s ever afraid.

Holly doesn’t seem to be far above him in this regard, and considering the film is told and seen from her point of view she shares this general detachment in terms of their victims. She shows a little more emotion than he does, but is so completely invested in his vision of the world that she believes that as long as he feels that they’re doing what they should that there is no reason to worry. Still, as the film progresses she drifts away from Kit. She begins to realize that he is not the man for her, and people like him are dangerous. She doesn’t recoil, but recoils from him. As a result he becomes less of a person, and more of a caricature. Where he once was exciting and enjoyable he becomes a parody of what she fell in love with, and it becomes clear that he was in it for the fame. It’s a bittersweet ending, as we’re happy that Holly survived and that Kit isn’t killed brutally… but the romance is shattered when we realize the source, however unconscious, of the spree.

The performances work beautifully in this film, and Sheen especially shines as one of my favourite performances ever committed to the screen. While he has a few high end roles (Apocalypse Now anyone?) it’s a shame he was never really given the same opportunity or respect as his contemporaries. Perhaps he was too subtle, and too good looking, while audiences were flocking to stars like Hoffmann, Nicholson and even Pacino who didn’t fit this mold. The film feels like a dream to be, and whenever I watch it I feel like I’m caught between waking and sleeping. It’s one of my all time favourites,

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