“I found a toaster.”
That’s all Kit Carruthers has to say to his blank young girlfriend after he takes her father’s freshly murdered body into the basement and emerges with a neglected kitchen appliance. The occasion marks the start of a killing spree that will drive the seemingly mismatched couple across the apathetic plains of South Dakota, a rampage that -- through the eyes of an upstart filmmaker named Terrence Malick -- fictionalizes the true-life saga of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate as a violent portrait of myth and meaninglessness.
"Badlands" has become one of the most scrutinized films in the history of American cinema, and yet few movies so consistently entreat viewers to return, reflect and reconsider. Malick's visual poetry, even in its most nascent form, resists easy explanation, and even the most overt gestures seem to slip through our fingers. I've seen the film a half-dozen times, but never quite the same way. Sitting down with The Criterion Collection's impossibly gorgeous new Blu-ray, I just couldn't get past that damn toaster. Where once it had been barely worth a passing mention, now it landed on the kitchen counter with the weight of a monolith (if you could buy monoliths at Sears).
For Kit, the small aluminum box is effectively meant to serve as Kit’s equivalent of an engagement ring, a token of promise that physicalizes his intentions for the vaguely serpentine teenager (Sissy Spacek as Holly) who will observe his homicides as a quiet (if not entirely complicit) witness. Their brief affair is bookended by another instance in which Kit (Martin Sheen as possessed by James Dean) uses small tokens to add a tangible dimension to the adventure, as -- just before everything goes haywire -- Holly tells us how her wild companion took a moment to dig a time capsule in the dirt. “Before we left he shot a football that he considered excess baggage,” Holly’s voiceover intones, moments after we see Kit fire at an old pigskin from his pistol and then slink over to prod it as if to confirm for himself that the air has gone out, as if destroying something is his only means of proving to himself that he can affect change.
“After that he took some of our things and put them in a bucket, he said that nobody else would know where we put them, and that we’d come back some day and things would be just the same, but we’d be different.” A magnifying glass. A trophy. A pack of cigarettes. Some old photographs. The plain-spoken narration, delivered entirely within the confines of an autistic vocal register, is often just ahead of the film’s action, as if the words are instructing the image, the characters on screen as oblivious as to what’s motivating their actions as we are. By this point in the story, however -- with the end so clearly in sight -- the order is reversed, as if Holly is bluntly recording what happened, afraid that it might all be forgotten.
Holly’s assessment of the situation could easily be extrapolated to describe the film as a whole, even though Terrence Malick’s first feature wasn’t exactly at risk of being conscripted to oblivion before it received the lavish Criterion treatment. There’s Holly’s father, a sign-maker whose old advertisements are already taking on the feint patina of pop art. And then there’s South Dakota itself, to which Holly and her dad relocated because the death of his wife / Holly’s mother has stained their former home. The place was the same, but it felt too different.
More than any single aesthetic element, what “Badlands” has most in common with the Malick films that would follow is that it picks a time period like a totem and anchors it with the density of a dying star, so that we and everything else circles around it in a perfect orbit -- never getting closer or farther away, our distance staying the same but our perspective always in flux. The films of Terrence Malick are bound by a unified ephemerality, his characters all struggling in their own ways and circumstances to reconcile themselves to a world in which they’re nothing but an afterthought. His films invariably meditate on the tension between presence and absence, scale being the only true variable: Individual rooms (“To the Wonder”), this mortal coil (“The Thin Red Line”), and the cosmos (“The Tree of Life”). And yet, for all their existential terror, Malick’s films seldom induce the anxiety or terror that might then be expected, because they have such a sincere respect for the solace they invite their characters to find. “Badlands” doesn’t judge Kit for the violent means by which he validates his existence (though Malick doesn’t endorse it, either), and to some extent I think that the film admires his effort.
Kit desperately wants his very existence to be validated, but his asking price is steep; he demands the world’s attention, and the world doesn’t really give a s**t. He keeps Holly around because he knows that she’s an invaluable asset to his image, but she’s an afterthought (the irony being that she’s ultimately the agent of his legend, as it’s her journal that conveys his exploits to the audience at large). But from where I’m standing these days, I don’t look at him as dispassionately as I used to. Now, the story of Kit Carruthers resounds with tragedy, as I feel like he could have gotten what he wanted, if only he knew how to ask for it. It’s like he’s read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” so many times, that he’s forgotten that it wasn’t written about him. Once I was awed by Kit, and now I merely pity him.
Revisiting “Badlands”, I was struck by the extent that my usual point of comparison, Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou”, no longer felt as pertinent or useful as it once had. Instead, my mind kept wandering to a more recent film, one that had been released in the time since I had last seen Malick’s debut -- Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom”.
Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson hardly seem to have all that much in common, so far as hyper-idiosyncratic American auteurs are concerned -- both are incredibly mannered, one far more delicately than the other -- but as soon as I heard the first, faint echo, everything began to reverberate. I don’t mean to suggest that Wes Anderson was “stealing” from Malick, or even necessarily conscious of the connections (Anderson maintains that Truffaut’s “Small Change” was the greatest single influence on his most recent film), but the extent to which “Moonrise Kingdom” evinces the process by which one American master revisited the remnants of another, and used them to tap into the zeitgeist some forty years later.
The superficial parallels between the two films are obvious, if not particularly substantive. Both movies are ostensibly about young people (children, in Anderson’s case), who join forces and jettison society, absconding to the wilderness in order to elude capture by the authorities (the feds in “Badlands”, merciless Khaki Scouts in “Moonrise Kingdom”). Beginning a new life in the thick of nature, both couples exchange disaffected dialogue (Holly admits that she “doesn’t have much personality,” a strange and earnest line that would fit comfortably in the mouth of a Wes Anderson character), dance and surrender their sexual innocence to whatever varying degrees they can. In each case, the women clumsily apply makeup, trying to find an aesthetic means of expressing their newfound agency.
The films even sound uncannily similar; “Badlands” extensively relies on the compositions of Carl Orff, whose“Musik zu einem Puppenspiel” seems to directly inform Alexandre Desplat’s original music for “Moonrise Kingdom”, in particular “The Heroic Weather Conditions of the Universe, Pt. 2: Smoke / Fire”. I’d encourage you to listen to samples of these songs on iTunes, but the Orff piece doesn’t seem to be there, and a search for “Puppenspiel” will introduce you to some German death metal. Perhaps even more obvious musical rhymes can be found between Orff’s “Mariae Geburt” and the other prominent figure on the “Moonrise Kingdom” soundtrack, Benjamin Britten, whose “Songs From Friday Afternoons, Op 7: Old Man Brown” shares the same plaintive piano and eerie choir of children’s voices. In each case, the musical cue is used to denote the end of innocence, an irrevocable maturation that sharply divides the lives of its characters. The most relevant difference is that this moment occurs just before the climax of “Moonrise Kingdom”, but at the end of the first act in “Badlands”.
Both films rely on the use of epistolary voiceover -- Holly speaks the words she writes in her journal, Sam and Suzy the instructions of their covert notes -- but the chief point of distinction is that Holly is writing to herself, whereas as Anderson’s precocious pen pals are writing to each other. The narration in “Moonrise Kingdom” is an exchange of mutual desire, whereas in “Badlands” it’s the blunt dictation of facts (save for a few brief asides, such as the one in which Holly emptily considers where her life might have taken her had it not been hijacked by Kit) -- it’s the difference between the process of living a life versus commenting on a life that’s already been lived. In “Moonrise Kingdom”, the characters seek the very same thing, but require the attention of just one person. Kit wants to be heard (he has a lot to say, even if he never figures out what that might be), but he needs the whole world to listen. Sam and Suzy just want someone to read their letters, and maybe bother to look for them before they fly the coop.
Anderson sublimates the physical world into his characters, his aesthetic a manifesto about how we make things a part of us, whereas Malick is all about how we can’t. It’s important to note that the photographs Kit and Holly bury are not of themselves, or necessarily even their own. It’s just stuff that they left behind, tainted by their touch. Malick’s characters struggle to learn how they can be of the world, whereas Anderson’s do the best they can to make it their own. Kit wants to bury relics for future generations, regarding every object as a potential souvenir, whereas Sam and Suzy conspire to transform land into landmarks, the glimpse of the titular beach we see at the end in Sam’s painting confided to us like a secret.
Holly fancies Kit as her own Rebel Without a Cause, while Suzy -- whose favorite characters are orphans because “their lives are more special” -- finds herself getting married to one. Kit buys into his Misfit myth because it’s all he knows, whereas Sam, younger and yet more wounded, defuses such Flannery O’ Connor idealization by responding to Suzy’s declaration with: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” At the end of the day, Sam seems to understand, we’re all misfits, and that’s what makes us so indispensable to each other. So far as Kit is concerned, Holly was never going to be a part of his future, just a key character in his legend. That’s why she was perfect for him. At the end of the film, his grand romantic gesture consists of apologizing to Holly for murdering her father, assuring her that there are other fish in the sea, and promising to help clear her of all charges. He’s excusing her from his hold, denying that they shared anything, that she wasn’t a participant in his homicidal adventure so much as she was a mute witness. Conversely, “Moonrise Kingdom” ends with the ultimate affirmation of a shared bond, as Sam inducts Suzy into a myth of their own design.
One film takes place on a tiny sliver of land that’s physically removed from the outside world, whereas the other stretches across the flat expanses of the Badlands. The two stories are separated by any number of things, but it ultimately boils down to the difference between being an island, and living on one -- between “stopping the world,” as Holly claims Kit allows them to do -- and finding a way to share it. The essay included with Criterion’s “Badlands” Blu-ray notes that Malick once described Kit as a closed book, but a film like “Moonrise Kingdom” opens him right up. Both films lust for meaning in an absurd universe, revolving around characters who struggle to affirm that they truly exist. One filmmaker would plant The Tree of Life, another builds a treehouse in it. The story never changes, but we do.
THE TRANSFER: Boasting a new, restored 4K transfer that was personally approved by Terence Malick, Criterion’s “Badlands” Blu-ray is predictably stunning. Insane, really. The transfer compliments a rich, film-like texture with remarkable detail and clarity. Malick’s debut hasn’t looked this sharp since its freshly struck prints first unspooled on opening night in 1973.
THE EXTRAS: While it won’t rank as one of Criterion’s most deluxe releases, “Badlands” is nevertheless presented alongside a healthy trove of bonus material, almost all of which is exclusive content and essential viewing. The highlight is incontestably “Making ‘Badlands’, a new 40-minute doc that shares candid interview footage of Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk. The way they speak about Malick, it’s the next best thing to the notorious recluse actually dropping by to participate. Other, shorter video interviews with editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman illuminate the film’s shoe-string production, and provide valuable insight as to how Malick came into his own. Finally, a 1993 episode of “American Justice” about the Starkweather / Fugate murder spree is included for good measure, but the film says everything that needs saying.
THE ART: F. Ron Miller’s pulpy, hand-drawn cover art was greeted to decidedly mixed reviews when it was unveiled a few months back, but its soapy tagline (“Burning love on the Great Plains in 1959”) and the serialized pop iconography clearly capture Kit Carruther’s self-image.