First Glimpse Of The Magic Hour: A Beginner’s Look At Malick’s Badlands

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Hi, I’m Noel. I’ve never before seen a Terrence Malick film, and Tim was kind enough to invite me to Cinetropolis for a series of articles in which I’ll explore Malick’s works for the first time, starting with his directorial efforts, then following up with a look at additional films he wrote and/or produced.

I’m not sure why I’ve never seen a Malick film before. My tastes tend to lean a little closer towards geek culture, but I have a decent grasp of cinema thanks to my father, who was a professional critic in the 70s and 80s. You can blame him for my having seen The Godfather and Apocalypse Now when I was around 10. And between Star Wars novels and 80s ninja flicks, I do occasionally enjoy exploring the vaster sea of cinema, like when I went through the complete works of Kurosawa and Peckinpah in the last few years. My dad has owned Malick’s first three films for years, but while he’d occasionally tell me about them or mention that I should see them some day, we just never got around to it.

Until now, when I threw in Badlands. And let me just preface this by saying I’m stuck with the crappy Warner Brothers DVD, with a shoddy, grainy transfer, as the recently announced Criterion Blu-Ray is still a few weeks away from it’s US release.

On the heels of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, Hollywood went through a swarm of films about young lovers struggling to make their relationship work while on the run from Johnny law, as their crimes are blurred by the public into a type of folk hero legend. Badlands managed to come early in the trend (with Malick admitting the influence by thanking Arthur Penn, director of the earlier film and his friend and mentor, in the credits) and was quickly followed by the likes of The Sugarland Express, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and numerous Roger Corman exploits like Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto, which added more comical exploits that would go on to inspire The Dukes of Hazzard.

Badlands tells the story of Kit (Martin Sheen), an impulsive and eccentric young loser failing to maintain his jobs as a garbage collector and, later, ranch hand. He skates by on his approachable charm and good looks, often compared by others to James Dean, and soon meets Holly (Sissy Spacek), the 15-year-old daughter of a sign painter (Warren Oates). As Kit and Holly grow closer, her father learns of Kit and disapproves, trying to force the two apart. When Kit shows up at the house, armed, with the intention of running off with Holly, the confrontation ends with the father taking two slugs to the gut and Kit setting the house ablaze as the two finally drive away.

They try setting up a domestic life for themselves in the wilderness, but are quickly tracked down, and end up running from place to place, the trigger-happy Kit leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. When they’re finally cornered by the cops, a disillusioned Holly turns herself in, and Kit races off to go out in a blaze of glory, but ends up surrendering himself as well. He quickly charms the policemen and reporters, but Holly’s voiceover clues us in to his fate on the electric chair as she recounts the life she’s now moved on to.

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Malick is known for the beauty of his films, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint, as the fields and deserts of Colorado are painted into rich vistas of Montana and South Dakota. It gives the entire film the sense of a steady breeze, that the players involved are just more dust being swept along through sights both gorgeous and desolate. And it’s important that the fields we see are never lush, as every patch of green is surrounded by a patch of dead dirt, and you never know which you’ll land on with each step forward.

Unfortunately, while it’s a very pretty film to look at, the narrative itself feels as distant and dispassionate as Holly’s voiceover. Like the constant dreams of Kit, the sweeping romance at the heart of the story is a mirage masking the senseless tale of a narcissistic sociopath on the run with a naive girl who has nowhere else to go after her father is killed by said narcissistic sociopath. While we see moments of playful innocence, it’s hard to be invested in these characters and their relationship. Kit is absolutely charming at first, but once we see his complete lack of impulse control – leading him to a range of quirks from saying every little thing that catches his eye just so everyone else will look at it too, to opening fire on people who are already restrained simply because he suddenly distrusts them – it’s impossible to buy into the personable smirk when it shows up again. He’s a guy who’s never to blame for his own actions, always conjuring up reasons to justify why his victims are at fault.

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And that’s really the point the film is trying to make, as this is all recognized by Holly, our audience proxy. Like her, we’re mostly along for the ride, not because we love this man, but because he’s handsome, exciting, and says he loves her. Also, she has nowhere else to go, and this is the closest she’ll come at this point in her life to seeing the world. But when they first have sex, her response is a disillusioned “That’s it?“, and that disillusionment carries on as none of Kit’s aspirations ever play out, and everything keeps going wrong with people dying at the end of his gun. He never threatens her or yells at her or hurts her, but by riding along, all she sees is the wake of bloodshed spilling from his constant failure, and his stubborn refusal to accept he’s the cause of it.

That all makes for a good story and good subtext, but there’s a very fine line between meditative and meandering, and this story very much meanders. A number of the episodes as they jump from place to place are well executed, but they get repetitive after a while, with little change in consequence between them. And it also betrays its quiet reality at times by slipping into almost farcical scenarios, like the army swarming around Kit with cheers and handshakes at the end, or their extended stay in the woods, where they construct a ridiculously elaborate treehouse – complete with never-used boobytraps straight out of First Blood – in a childlike satire of domestic bliss.

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The screenplay I also read (a cutting continuity draft, a final revision which is used as an editing guide) refers to that stretch as a fantasy, but there’s nothing in the film to indicate it as such, as the sheriff and his posse who are killed by Kit are seen to die for real as they invade his homestead. The film also loses itself in far too many moments where they just found a prop on location and started playing with it, like dead animals or stuff lying about a home. They feel real, but they again sidetrack the story, so all we are is continuously drifting along, waiting for things to pick up again.

Again, it’s a very well made film. The cinematography (the work of three different men, though I never got a sense of discordance as a result) is top-notch work, whether we’re staring at the sun setting on a horizon or spinning in the middle of a surprise car chase. There’s a few arias that feel a little forced, but the soundtrack is otherwise very fitting, and the use of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” is absorbing and creates a sense of youth and innocence that feels distant when the xylophone melody disappears. The cast is marvelous, with a pair of strong leads backed by briefly seen supporters.

Overall, it’s a fine film, but I can’t say I love it. True, the meandering narrative is so done out of intention, but it still kept me from fully synching up with what was happening on screen. I was looking at the pictures from shot to shot, and I could fully appreciate them, but when Orff wasn’t playing, I was unable to feel them. They were like hearing a distant recollection from an aged Holly while she flips through a photo album. The material is there and context is being given, but it still has an air of disconnect that will prevent it from sticking.

Originally posted 2013-02-23 11:39:42. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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