The Immortal Story: Divas and Dandies By Jonathan Rosenbaum
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“I call myself The Misfit . . . because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report.
—Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Terrence Malick’s Badlands is a subdued, lyrical masterpiece concerning a killing spree undertaken by a politely intransigent young man named Kit, accompanied by his passive, elfin fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Holly, who narrates the tale. It’s Malick’s astonishing first feature, completed in 1973, fifteen years after the real-life exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, a photogenic teenage couple who captured national attention during a nine-day rampage that resulted in ten murders.
What did Starkweather and Fugate embody about some lethal short circuit in the American psyche, about alienation and loneliness radiating across the open range, about the ways that death can become a shadowy abstraction, hovering close but never quite touching us?
It can be argued whether Malick was deliberately posing these questions, but in returning to the Starkweather story at the height of the Vietnam War, at a time of deep national disillusionment, he was steering his audience to a place where such considerations would be hard to avoid, and would carry a sting. In interviews appearing in Sight & Sound and Positif in 1975, when Badlands was released in Europe, Malick described how he “wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time.” And so he devised a death-haunted film, primly narrated by a teenage girl, in which carnage is briskly staged, discreet, almost bloodless. He grafted in events from Starkweather’s true crimes—the dispatching of a young couple in a storm shelter, a visit to a rich man’s house—but left out the killer’s ugliest achievements (the slaughter of a two-year-old child and a seventy-year-old man, an attempted rape, the murder of two dogs).
Malick, clearly enough, was interested in innocence—which would become one of his abiding themes—and in how innocence gets tempered and tested in the face of irrational, uncontrollable violence. He granted his two protagonists an impenetrable purity, a supple, sweet, murder-resistant air of lostness—which sets the story apart from the Starkweather case and just about every previous lovers-on-the-run movie, including the conspicuous 1967 hit Bonnie and Clyde.
One of the glories of Badlands, brightening over time, is the absolute rightness of the casting: Martin Sheen as the laconic killer, Sissy Spacek as the scrawny schoolgirl who considers him “handsomer than anybody I’d ever met.” Neither actor had shouldered a leading role before; they look endearingly young, and everything about their movements and mannerisms—her shyness and his pretended confidence—feels perfectly calibrated, as a great deal of the film’s unsettling power derives from the characters’ sustained earnestness and charm.
The story starts and ends with Holly. The prevailing tone, a mix of intimacy and detachment, irony and reverie, is shaped by her voice-overs, whereby Spacek’s catlike silence and coolness are overlaid with expressions of adolescent yearning and the language of romance novels. There’s some purple prose—“In the stench and slime of the feedlot, he’d remember how I looked the night before”—but Malick also allows Holly to reach deeper, most notably in a freestanding interlude where she shuttles through photographs in a stereopticon, recognizing her own mortality and musing about the convergence of chance and choice that brought her to the present and will carry her into the future:
Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me, or killed anybody—this very moment—if my mom had never met my dad—if she’d’ve never died? And what’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like? What’s he doin’ right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me?
Malick shows us a photo of a bedouin holding a rifle beneath the Great Sphinx, that exhausted-looking mass of broken stone, followed by faded nineteenth-century faces unaware of their current nonexistence—a quick array of lost histories, unknowable destinies. The sequence is as enthralling as a Joseph Cornell box or a Borges story, and the feeling of time travel and ontological mystery fans through the rest of the film.
While Malick channeled the story through Holly, Kit is plainly the more complicated, mysterious creation. In the Sight & Sound interview, Malick described Kit as a person who had tasted bitterness, had suffered, and became “a closed book.” Like Starkweather, he’s a narcissistic James Dean wannabe with self-consciously sculpted hair and a faraway look in his eye. We meet him as he’s about to be fired from his job collecting trash, but he spends the rest of the movie on a virtual junk treasure hunt, inspecting, acquiring, and discarding various nonessential items displayed in the homes of other people. It’s not insignificant that Holly’s disapproving father is a sign painter, a man who traffics in the bright promises of consumer culture—promises that may be empty but, in Kit’s mind, are never quite invalidated. After he remorselessly shoots the father, sets his house on fire, and leaves the corpse in the parlor, Kit rescues a framed Maxfield Parrish print, transporting it to the tree house he builds for Holly and himself in the woods. He bundles “little tokens and things” with a written declaration of love and sets it all aloft in a basket attached to a balloon. More stuff gets lifted from the rich man’s house (including a panama hat just like the dead father’s), and when the fugitives cross into South Dakota, Kit takes pains to bury excess knickknacks (including stereopticon photos) in a bucket. These twin reflexes—to show disdain for other people’s junk and to use choice scraps of it to mark and memorialize his own life—amount to a running gag, by which Kit, it can be argued, reflects Malick’s skepticism about the ephemeral nature of human identity, possessions, and the encompassing material world.
Sheen conveys how transparent, how willful and makeshift, Kit’s posturing can be, and yet the character remains vividly vulnerable, a dissatisfied soul who occasionally snaps after fresh outbreaks of violence. Malick abides by Holly’s point of view—Kit’s not particularly vicious, just “trigger-happy” and “trapped.” His abrupt, spasmodic rants are filmed in respectful wide shot; we don’t hear a word.
The inadequacy of language—spoken, written, or thought—measured against the world’s mute radiance, is a kind of subtheme running throughout the movie (and throughout Malick’s subsequent work). When Kit tells Holly, “I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m lucky that way,” the assertion weaves into another ongoing joke, as Kit’s patter is a steady discharge of dim small talk and received ideas, displayed most starkly during the respite in the rich man’s house, when he self-consciously settles in to speak into a tape recorder, delivering platitudes, between earnest huffs of breath, for the benefit of future generations: “Consider the minority opinion—but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted.”
By the end of the film, Kit’s self-mythology has blended with a full-on celebrity status earned through killing. He registers no guilt and, even in the heat of his final run, presents himself with empty swagger: “Name’s Carruthers. I shoot people ever’ now and then. Not that I deserve a medal.”
Charles Starkweather, by contrast, left us with one concise, black axiom: “Dead people are all on the same level.”
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.
—Flannery O’Connor, “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable”
Both Kit Carruthers and Charles Starkweather fall short of the troubled, toxic ramblings of the Misfit, the escaped convict who talks about the weather and Jesus Christ while presiding over the massacre of a vacationing family in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” among the most cryptic, acclaimed, and widely anthologized short stories in midcentury American fiction, first published in 1953. The Misfit is the prototypical affable serial killer/philosopher, a nightmarish fabrication who eerily prefigured Starkweather (they both wore wire-rimmed spectacles). O’Connor’s story may not have been a direct influence on Malick, but it would be anomalous if the filmmaker had never read it. Like the Misfit, in any case, Kit has set himself apart from a dull and complacent workaday world, and he offers incongruous politeness—“I have a gun here, sir”—before springing into homicidal action. The Misfit is more explicitly motivated by a lust for meaning in an absurd universe, by rage over the puzzle of human suffering, the routine imbalance between crime and punishment—but Kit expresses a parallel unease and indignation, and he pursues, with Holly, a dream of escape, freedom, transcendence.
Malick’s camera seems to endorse this dream, serving up skies filled with burning sunsets, flannel clouds, flashes of lightning. Recurring musical motifs—a buoyant passage from Carl Orff, a wistful patch from Erik Satie—further situate the story in “some magical land,” a place that Holly, in voice-over, wishes she’d wake up in. There’s comic irony in this, as both Holly and Kit drift into misaligned delusional states. A particular chill enters the picture when Kit gratuitously shoots his only friend, prompting Holly to admit, “I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like you’re just sittin’ there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” All the same, a sense of immanence remains Malick’s signature effect, whereby the world’s luminosity overwhelms competing indications of banality or horror, futility or folly.
Malick would likely agree with O’Connor’s notion that violence in a story “is never an end in itself,” and that death, in the world of a violent story, perches characters “on the verge of eternity”—a place where everyone arrives soon enough, without ever being “too well prepared for it.”
As Malick brings Kit and Holly closer to this edge, as their stolen Cadillac kicks up dust across the prairie and Holly, in voice-over, confides her disenchantment, the landscape drains like that tub, and we may glean that Badlands is a story of lost children at large in a moral vacuum. But we never arrive at a blah moment; the filmmaker still holds his characters in tender regard, and sets them aglow. He gives the couple a romantic send-off, a gliding two-step illuminated by car headlights, with Nat King Cole’s voice implausibly swelling out over the radio and carrying into successive shots—a kind of benediction while eternity lies waiting.
Revisiting the film, I was surprised at how it gathers energy after Holly—in a stunning, near wordless close-up—abandons Kit, triggering his last run. Kit abruptly assumes action-hero competence, outshooting and outdriving the pursuing police. (The chase is breathtaking, with cars blasting in and out of obscuring dust clouds.) But this sudden trajectory is leveraged against an intervening moment of quiet desperation, one of the most eloquently underplayed and poignant scenes in the film. Kit, alone now, pulls into a gas station to refuel, crouches under a sign featuring a Pepsi-Cola bottle cap that’s bigger than he is, and starts emptying Holly’s suitcase, flinging dresses into a trash barrel. Then he finds her journal—the likely source of the narration we’ve been hearing—and he can’t help but stop and read. What does she say and think? Can anyone ever understand or love him? Or is she just writing about herself? Kit takes the book back to the car—one bit of trash he feels compelled to preserve—while nodding to the nonplussed attendant, indicating the suitcase, the remnants of Holly’s shattered girlhood: “Want any of that junk, it’s yours.”
She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.
— “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Malick is the son of a Texas oil company executive—the beneficiary of a privileged background, presumably, but his summer jobs away from Harvard included work on oil rigs and a stint driving cement trucks in a railroad yard. Upon being chosen for a Rhodes Scholarship, he studied philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford, but a squabble with his adviser led him to leave without a degree. Freelance journalism for Life and the New Yorker was followed by a year teaching philosophy at MIT, but Malick determined that he was “not a good teacher.” In 1969, he entered the American Film Institute’s inaugural class. He completed a comic short, Lanton Mills, pairing himself as an actor with Harry Dean Stanton—old-fashioned cowboys on horseback rob a modern bank—and made headway as a Hollywood screenwriter while still in school, including working on a version of Dirty Harry with Marlon Brando attached.
As Malick testified in one other interview—appearing in 1974 in the now defunct Filmmakers Newsletter—Badlands was a truly independent venture, “financed like a Broadway play,” with money gathered from investors who didn’t know one another. The writer-director-producer took no salary and contributed roughly $25,000 from his screenwriting earnings on the way to rustling up half the $300,000 budget. A matching sum arrived courtesy of Ed Pressman, who was soon to launch a series of uniquely ambitious American independent films by channeling funds from his family toy business.
But Badlands’s production history was not auspicious. Malick quarreled with his crew and replaced two cameramen before settling into a satisfactory collaboration with his friend Stevan Larner. The fire scene—so serenely spectacular in the finished film—went out of control when an inexperienced member of the art department lit a match and set off an explosion that destroyed a camera and severely injured the effects supervisor. “Soon our team was made of only four or five people,” Malick recounted. “We were shooting on private properties without authorization. The police were looking for us, along with the IRS. We ourselves were on the run.” Filming with an unblimped camera—“to speed things up”—resulted in unusable sound, requiring the actors to loop 70 percent of their dialogue. “We didn’t have enough money. I stopped shooting to write screenplays, and that took almost a year.”
Disasters and delays of this sort can be almost routine for novice directors, but how often does the resulting movie appear so formally seamless, polished, and precise, so rigorous and self-contained? Consider Malick’s debut in relation to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, another magnificent directorial breakthrough that premiered, like Badlands, at the 1973 New York Film Festival. Mean Streets is palpably the work of a young man, powered by raw energy and restlessness, a film full of jump cuts and rough edges, whereas Badlands unfolds with magisterial fluidity and poise, a seemingly immaculate conception.
It’s somehow fitting that Scorsese cast himself in Mean Streets as a snarling killer and that Malick makes an uncredited appearance in Badlands as a visiting architect or engineer—a big fellow with a heavy face and searching brown eyes, a rolled blueprint tucked under one arm. When Kit deflects him at the door to the rich man’s house, the visitor registers befuddlement and offers a few hesitant words before writing a note and departing with his plans and life intact, unknowingly spared destruction.
It’s a terrifically restrained, persuasive performance, and worth savoring—a glimpse of the visionary filmmaker, twenty-eight years old, at the start of an unconventionally brilliant career, before he took the Kubrickian high road and disappeared into a strict vow of silence and invisibility, allowing no further cameos, interviews, photographs, or even the slightest public evidence that his films emanate from a knowable human source. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. This edict, we can hope, allows the wizard to get on with the more essential business of living his life and making his movies. Still, here he is in Badlands, plain as day. The worried, humble man carrying the rolled blueprint can seem, at this juncture, to be looking back at us and through us, like the figures locked in Holly’s stereopticon, like the mysteries and miracles unfolding throughout Malick’s best work—a presence on the way to becoming an absence, offering intimations of a future that will engulf us all.
Michael Almereyda’s most recent film is The Man Who Came Out Only at Night.