Thursday, August 8, 2013

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Badlands (1973)

It is a rare thing that a film's influence can stretch across decades into other films.  When a special movie comes along and takes audiences by storm, there are most certainly imitators just around the corner, but those imitators soon flame out.  Think of Die Hard, and the way it transformed the landscape of 90s action flicks.  Or what about Fatal Attraction and the onslaught of yuppies-in-danger films on its heels in the late 80s?  But Terrence Malick's Badlands has stood the test of time and its influence has carried over into films for four decades.  In the early nineties, True Romance not only followed a similar marrative path of the film, it even borrowed the steel-drum score.  A few years later, Oliver Stone's hyperactive, scandalous Natural Born Killers borrowed from Badlands in its quieter moments.  And the influence of this quiet masterpiece has carried all the way into 2013, with the upcoming release of the Casey Affleck/Rooney Mara crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

Badlands is loosely based on the 1958 Starkweather-Fugate murders, where a young couple traveled across South Dakota indiscriminately murdering unsuspecting victims.  But this film is not so much a true crime as it is a mixture of genres where the audience can never quite settle into a level of comfort or complacency with the characters.  Martin Sheen stars as Kit, a garbage man in a small Dakota town who makes up with bravado what he lacks in brains.  Kit is cold, flat, detatched from just about everyone around him.  Everyone, that is, except Holly, a young teenage girl he meets in town played by a fresh-faced Sissy Spacek.  Kit and Holly have an obvious attraction with one another and they fall into an offbeat relationship.  Only Holly's father strongly disapproves, dismissing Kit one afternoon when Kit approaches him at his job painting billboards.  Kit decides the best route is to murder Holly's father, so he does, and the two hit the road.

Rather than dissolving into a chase picture, Badlands takes its most interesting turn.  Kit and Holly flee to the woods where they live for some time in the trees, building treehouses and their operating in their own environment away from society.  They catch their own food and spend long days in peaceful serenity.  Only Holly shows signs of dissent.  She is much younger, and thus more apprehensive about uprooting her own life which still may have some promise.  Kit, however, is a man lost at a dead end, and this is his best option.  Before long the authorities discover their hideaway and the two young lovers must abandon their post and go on the run.

Martin Sheen is hypnotic in the lead role of Kit.  He kills indiscriminately, without remorse and without much regard for human life.  Holly is impressionable, lonely, and her adventurous spirit my be responsible for getting her in over her head with Kit, who is homicidal.  Badlands is also the only cameo from Terrence Malick, notoriously reclusive from this moment forward.  He plays a man outside the door of a wealthy family Kit and Holly have invaded.

Badlands is a mystical and visual masterwork from Malick, who has maybe tarnished his legendary stature in recent years with films that can be interpreted as purposefully oblique and without purpose.  i can see that argument with the frustrating To The Wonder, but Tree of Life is evidence he still has his fastball.  That being said, his two earlier films are on another level of simple beauty and sublime direction.  Both Badlands and the follow up, Days of Heaven, deal in the currency of guilt, and whether or not the guilt of murder is enough to keep a person from their ultimate desires.  Both films also deal with passion and love, but in vastly different ways.  Where Days of Heaven involves a love triangle, Badlands has a currency of pureness in its romantic angle.  And there is something about the impending doom of Kit and Holly that draws me into Badlands on a deeper level.

It is true that Bonnie and Clyde may have influenced the pastoral nature of Badlands, and Bonnie and Clyde has its own string of cinematic influences across time.  But the direct correlations between Badlands and some of the better "doomed love" crime dramas are undeniable.  The strength of the film lies within the performances of Sheen and Spacek, and of course the very raw and then unpolluted directorial career of the great Terrence Malick.