Terrence Malick’s 2011 THE TREE OF LIFE quickly met with a healthy dose of popular and critical guffawing, ostensibly prompted by its sparse dialogue, voice-over meditations on metaphysical themes, and lengthy cinematographic sequences—including a natural history seemingly beginning at the origins of existence—at a remove from the film’s human narrative (at least 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s natural history was limited to a phylogeny of man, right?). As is to be expected, a wave of adulation soon followed among narrower circles with more serious-minded critics tripping over themselves, not unjustly, to establish the philosophical legitimacy of the reclusive director’s oeuvre beginning with his first film, BADLANDS (1973).
Released seven years after BONNIE AND CLYDE, BADLANDS follows Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers (sounds like “druthers,” he remarks), a charismatic 25-year-old with a fondness for James Dean, and Sissy Spacek’s Holly Sargis, a soft-spoken and playful 15-year-old. Spacek’s wistful, deadpan retrospection provides voice-over narration throughout the film as the two travel across the Western United States, as much on the run for murdering Holly’s father, among others, as aimlessly traipsing between invented Arcadias.
Acolytes of psychological cinema will be disappointed by Malick’s work, which by and large eschews questions of the mind. BADLANDS is not immediately concerned with answering why Kit and Holly are able to kill people so remorselessly, at least not in terms of psychology or sociology (though it hints at the latter: the film begins with Kit working at and being fired from his dead-end job; his adventure with Holly ends abruptly when they begin to wonder about employment possibilities). Nevertheless, it is from the simultaneity of Kit and Holly’s apparent innocence and the coldness of the murders they commit that the film draws much of its force and tension. How should viewers reconcile this pair’s playful vivacity, their celebration of life and each other, with their ability to pull out a gun and kill someone?
Some explanation is available though, in the concern with mortality and the finitude of human experience that pervades the film from its very first words:
“My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman…Then, one day, hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all his memories, he moved us from Texas to Ft. Dupree, South Dakota.”
The hysteron proteron of these remarks is at first disorienting: the death of Holly’s mother is mentioned before her marriage to Holly’s father and his preservation of their wedding cake. Perhaps this syntax adumbrates an alternate temporality, in which an awareness of mortality does precede and shape experience—it inaugurates our constant efforts to memorialize and create meaning in our lives. Throughout the film, Kit collects objects and creates from them archives against his own impermanence: “little tokens and things” placed in a basket attached to a balloon, a buried bucket of souvenirs, a record of their fictitious suicide created at a fifty cent gramophone booth. These material tokens of memory form a murky refraction of Kit and Holly’s acts of violence. Like the construction of artifacts, the murders they commit are a kind willed confrontation with mortality, a commandeering of the unerring hand of contingency.
The film is above all concerned with how we see, how we make the world and its inhabitants present to us. When Kit shoots another person, does he see them as human or does he see them at a filmic remove as though they were participants in the mise-en-scene of the popular films he avidly enjoys? How do we look at the world without fictionalizing it or distancing ourselves from it? What is a filmmaker’s responsibility as a maker and purveyor of representations?
These concerns make for an intensely, relentlessly beautiful cinematography and, if nothing else, BADLANDS is exceptionally worthwhile as a visual experience. All the more so right now: October 25-27 at the Brattle. You can and should watch a new restoration of the film on the theatre’s new digital projector.
Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)
October 25 (8:00, 10:00)
October 26-27 (1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:30, 9:30)
$10 GA, $8 Students