Friday, December 04, 2020

Badlands (1973)

USA, 94 minutes
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Photography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Music: George Aliceson Tipton, Mickey & Sylvia
Editors: Robert Estrin, Billy Weber
Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn

I haven't kept up much with director and writer Terrence Malick since The Tree of Life, which was way too muddled, Christianist, and overrated for me. He has been at least as productive in the past 10 years as any other stretch of his career: To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015, about a tarot card I understand), Song to Song (2017, sez "play loud" but the music is buried in the mix with everything else), and A Hidden Life (2019). Song to Song is the one I've seen, just a few weeks ago, and had a bad reaction. If you despaired of the Sean Penn sequences in The Tree of Life, that's basically all Song to Song is for over two hours. Also, in the past year or two, I paid a revisit to the 1978 Days of Heaven and came away decidedly unravished. I think in the '70s I might have even called it better than Badlands, but now I am more inclined to compare Days of Heaven unfavorably with Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

So I wasn't sure what I was going to get with a return to Malick's auspicious 1973 debut, the kinda-sorta story of Charlie Starkweather and girlfriend Carol Ann Fugate on a 1958 Midwestern killing spree, Bonnie and Clyde style, Gun Crazy style—one of the 20th century's favorite stories (Raymond Pettibon's version by way of Sonic Youth: "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road"—I know, a reference to the Moors murders, but same diff). As it turns out, I should not have worried. Badlands is as lean and effective as I remembered it, a smoldering explosive mood piece, with Martin Sheen preening as Kit, a 25-year-old James Dean lookalike lost in the backwoods sticks of South Dakota, and Sissy Spacek as 15-year-old Holly, whose voiceover narration is full of the profound stillness and wisdom of Carson McCullers characters. In its quiet unassuming way, Badlands is close to perfect.

You can say it misfires in some insignificant ways. It's arguable that Warren Oates is wasted as Holly's surly father, for example. Or the violence, surprisingly, feels a little overdone. Kit is sure killing a lot of people but it must be OK because their love is true? Holly's father makes sense, and a trio of bounty hunters too, maybe. And I guess I'm open to the idea that Kit goes blood simple here as the movie goes along—it fits him, it suits him. But the large stack of corpses feels like something more about the way especially crime-related movies were made in the '70s. Still, ultimately, Badlands is the work of someone who plainly knows what he's doing. It works best as a two-hand piece, but so many things fall together here so well: Sheen and Spacek and the cinematography and the cutting and a couple of effortless pop song moments (notably Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange") with an achingly memorable theme by Carl Orff, and no padding whatsoever.

One departure from the Bonnie and Clyde mold that I like very much is that Kit's instinct when they have to run and hide is to go deep into the woods, build a treehouse, and live off the land. This is not a story of desperate hoodlums, guns blazing, diving out of the bathroom windows of motel rooms to get away. Kit and Holly are not living on the margins—they are getting off the grid. It's the hippie ideal in a way even though they are anything but hippies, and neither is Malick (I think). Although he is already the nature enthusiast with gorgeous close-up shots of bugs and other fauna and flora during these interludes. He hasn't quite worked up to his go-to swirling looking-up shot of tall treetops (and Days of Heaven, set on the plains remember, has no forest) but knowing what we know now you can see him feeling his way into it.

Wikipedia falls all over itself winding up to categorize Badlands: "American neo-noir period crime drama." Really it is driven by the relationship between Kit and Holly, which is unnerving on its most basic terms and seemed somehow even more dangerous than ever the last time I looked: he is 25 and can't even hold a job as a garbage man, and she is 15—a mature 15, sure, maybe, but 15. I don't remember the age difference being particularly shocking in the '70s when I first saw it, but it is now. So I have more sympathy for her father! Still, as the "Love Is Strange" montage emphasizes, this is a classic story of postwar desperate teenage love right at the detonation point, speaking of winding up to categorize it. Malick has a great way of making it both urgent and nostalgic at the same time.

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