Lawrence Russell

Badlands (1973) writ. and dir. Terence Malik cine. Brian Probyn, Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner music George Tipton, various artists star. Martin Sheen (Kit Carruthers), Sissy Spacek (Holly Knox), Warren Oates (Mr. Knox), Ramon Bieri (Cato), John Carter (rich man), Dona Baldwin (maid)

Kit Carruthers (Sheen) comes off as a Billy The Kid kind of folk hero, another killer without a conscience who nevertheless has some sort of charm. You don't know where he learned his shooting skills, or just where he comes from. Holly (Spacek) tells you he was fastidious -- a characteristic no doubt learned from his job as a garbageman -- so you suspect he's another anal-retentive, a control-freak who starts shooting because that's the only way he can keep his world together.

Badlands is a contemporary Western. Instead of a horse, Kit rides his big black '49 Monarch (later a stolen black Cadillac) through the gullies and dirt roads and even over the open prairie of South Dakota and Montana. This gives the film a lyrical feel, a sense of freedom in an open frontier, a clear path through Time and Space to Texas, the runaways initial destination. Big skies, open plains -- a bisecting horizon, a division in the mind, a sense of destination without arrival. Beautiful.

The story is loosely modelled on the Starkweather-Fugate killing rampage of the fifties -- at the time just an aberrational incident worthy of folk mythology and isolation in the history books, but today an all too common occurrence. Clearly Oliver Stone's 1994 film Natural Born Killers is a satire and aesthetic mirror of Badlands. Both use monologues and montage to move the action, although Stone uses a psychotropic wall of noise as his soundtrack whereas Malik uses mostly silence. Badlands is pre-global media. The characters move in isolation whereas the characters in NBK move with an entourage. In the nineties, human rage is a condition of shrinking space, the paranoiac reflex of passengers and prisoners. In the fifties, it's still personal, one man against another.

You know why Kit starts killing. He's 25 and Holly's old man won't let him take her away. Mr. Knox (Oates) is a curious character, a sign painter with a Biblical discipline -- he shoots Holly's dog as a punishment for her affair with Kit, a gesture that suggests a pathology every bit as dangerous as that of the man he despises. Kit goes on to kill six or seven more people. When Kit kills, it's a reaction, not an execution. When old man Knox shoots the dog, he's trying to kill love -- but all he does is guarantee his abstraction. One thing Malik does very well is demonstrate the culture of the gun where both sides of the law are on the same side of homicide: when Kit is captured and is being escorted back to the Sheriff's car, the young cop fires at a cooing bird in the adjacent prairie, a reflex as natural as spitting.

U.I. Man: What kind of work you think you'd be qualified for?

Kit: Can't think of anything right now...

Kit loses his job, is frustrated in his romance, recognizes that when Holly's father shoots her dog he's really shooting him. He decides (not Holly) that they're going to run away, slips into her house, packs her clothes. Holly and her father return, surprise Kit, and an altercation ensues. When Mr. Knox says he's going to call "the authorities", Kit says, "I can't allow that" and shoots him. Holly's reaction is curious -- she slaps him, as if she's witnessed an indiscretion, not a homicide.

While Spacek has the perfect visual manner for the character of Holly, the poetic sensitivity of the VO monologues reveals a consciousness that's a bit of a stretch for a 15 year old girl... but as a retrospective of an older Holly, perhaps believable. It's not so much feminist propaganda as it's a crude POV for the auteur, Terence Malik. In contrast, Kit is evidently an illiterate as he is forced to use dictaphones in order to record his messages for whom-it-may-concern whereas Holly keeps a sophisticated journal. You suspect that their relationship is based on sexual animalism, yet Holly dismisses their first act of intercourse with, "Gosh -- what was everybody talkin' about?" She appears to be in love with an image (James Dean), a Freudian assassin... not the local trash collector.

Kit torches the Knox house and they flee into the country, hideout in a remote cottonwood grove beside a river. Just as the burning house is presented as a montage, their initial weeks as survivalists are also seen in montage. Holly learns about guns as they live in a treehouse, fish the river, argue on the beach. While it's not impossible, their idyll seems improbable. One day the bounty hunters arrive... and they don't look a lot different than they do in any cowboy movie. Kit ambushes, shoots them all, just like ducks -- five shots for four men.

They flee into the prairie, force their company on Cato, a former co-worker from the garbage collection days. Cato tells them about some gold that's buried in the field, tries to run away, but good old Kit wounds him with a quick shot... then opens the door, allows his friend to lurch inside to his bed, where he dies complacently a day or two later. A couple arrive in a Studebaker, ask for Cato, and Kit imprisons them in a storm bunker. As usual, Holly watches but doesn't participate, chats with the woman as if they're someplace else, asks if she's in love. When the woman expresses uncertainty, it's as if Kit is making the decision for her when he fires a couple of shots through the door into the bunker.

In another montage that bridges to the next scene, we see how their rampage has struck fear throughout the Midwest in small-town American -- more visual and verbal poeticism which romanticizes the flight of this less than glorious couple. Oddly, though, the killings stop, as if Kit regains his humanity as they penetrate deeper into the solitude of the landscape... or he realizes that in fact he's lost his hold on Holly. When they commandeer the home of the "rich man", Holly goes for a stroll alone in the grounds, considers slipping away. The world, she notes, is "like another planet".

"Listen to your parents and teachers... don't treat them like enemies...."

Kit records another ludicrous monologue on a dictaphone he finds in the house, then locks the rich man and his deaf maid in a closet in an act that is as metaphoric as it is pragmatic. Holly's no longer listening to him, so he's locking her into the past with her father or an incarnation of himself. The rich man is compliant, like a dream figure, another solitary man supported by a woman who watches.

Driving the rich man's Cadillac, they head into the Great Plains, using drip-gas from the pipelines as fuel, following the telephone lines towards the mountains of Montana. "We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there" says Holly in her VO as the black Caddy moves in a dust cloud down the dirt tracks and across the vast open landscape into the clouds, into the night, into destiny. They're driving for Texas. They're driving for Montana. They spin a bottle... they're driving for Saskatchewan. In truth, they're driving nowhere, merely circling as they await their fate.

It's signaled by a white dove illuminated in their headlights. As the next day develops, they arrive at a drilling rig, same time as the law arrives in a helicopter. Holly says she doesn't want to go on. Kit says, "You listen, you want a second chance? 12 noon, Grand Coulee Dam, New Year's day, 1964." It's a rendezvous he will never keep, and if Holly does, it's simply an unfinished part of her fantasy, as she marries the son of the lawyer who defends her at their subsequent trial. Kit gets the electric chair -- and why not? He killed six people, including one of the lawmen who arrives in the helicopter.

His capture is self-scripted... or perhaps he thinks it is. When the pursuing patrol car rolls at a junction, he could've escaped for the time being but pulls over, shoots his front tire, later claims he had a blow-out. As the cops approach, he builds a small stone cairn on the shoulder of the road to mark the end of his flight... just as he used a rock to mark the site of the sex act that began it.

Young Cop: Kit, I got a question for you: you like people?

Kit: They're o.k.

Young Cop: Then why did you do it?

Kit: I dunno... I always wanted to be a criminal -- just not this big a one. (shrugs) It takes all kinds.

Young Cop: (to the Sheriff) You know who that son'abitch looks like, don't you? (to Kit) I'll kiss my ass if you don't look like James Dean...

Kit and Holly are a far more sympathetic pair than Starkweather and Fugate, the inspiration for this poetic view of thwarted love and circumstantial homicide. Starkweather was nineteen and managed to kill and mutilate eleven people, including Fugate's parents. He hated just about everyone based on the insecurity that they hated him, believed his murders would ensure fame and immortality. He was executed in Nebraska in June of 1959. Fugate spent years in prison, and her parole was marked by a TV drama recreating the killing spree. While Starkweather affected the James Dean look, she in no way resembled the poet Malik sees in Holly Knox.

So Badlands is fiction, only the landscape is real. Unlike its satire, Natural Born Killers, the killings are reactive... although the first one would be considered premeditated as Kit went to the Knox house armed with a gun.

The characters are idiots, of course. There's an attempt to render them as charmingly naive. Kit's dictaphone speech telling us to "listen to (our) parents and teachers... don't treat them like enemies" seems designed for the PTA and the Rating Board, an unbelievable statement from someone who shoots friends and foes as easily as he dumps garbage. When this film was made, there was a generational movement to make a sonnet out of American violence, as if poetry were a healing method, an incantation to the Gods. Bonnie And Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Badlands....

Kit Carruthers, another American hero: the cops and the soldiers could see it -- he's just like James Dean.

© LR 1/7/99


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