Thought Catalog

Terrence Malick's Poetic Vision of the Outlaw Couple: Badlands

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Terrence Malick’s Badlands, released in 1973, came after a series of New Hollywood “outlaw lovers” films. Examples from the classic era include Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (’37) Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (’49), and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (’50). The first post-classical example is, of course, Godard’s Breathless (’60). The New Hollywood cycle started with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (’67); other examples are Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (’74) and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (’74). Badlands is the least like these other films, but it certainly can be considered a variation on the template Breathless established, in that it departs significantly from classical Hollywood and has a meta-narrative register that uses generic conventions in self-conscious ways. Badlands‘ characters, like the others, perform roles as if they have at least some awareness of other stories that resemble theirs. Furthermore, Badlands has a scenario that closely resembles Bonnie and Clyde, as Kit and Holly, the outlaw couple, are also based on real-life figures. Malick’s film also has a curious connection to Godard’s Pierrot le fou, because like Ferdinand and Marianne in that film, Kit and Holly retreat into nature. These similarities might suggest that Badlands is not even worth writing about, but in fact in its quiet, subtle, and oblique way, it is radically different from these New Wave (Hollywood or French) films – and besides, even a casual look at the film reveals Malick’s singular vision that continues to attract and perplex viewers with each of his films.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina from Pierrot le fou

Badlands is clearly a genre film in one sense – it is a post-classical version of conventional genre films, and the New Hollywood saw a lot of “genre revision” (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Godfather, etc.) What separates Badlands is Malick’s unique use of conventions and what I would call his approach to the formulaic template. In it, Malick is not interested in deconstructing Hollywood conventions or in reinventing them, which seems to be the preoccupation of Godard, for example, in his early films. Neither is Malick someone who brings the French New Wave to the United States in a more palatable form, which is essentially what Arthur Penn did. Many of the features that characterized the French New Wave, such as disjunctive editing and rapid pacing, are not part of Malick’s style. Rather, Badlands is a film that explores what genre conventions and other clichés offer its characters. As James Morrison and Thomas Schurr put it in their book-length study of Malick, comparing the film to other similar films, “Badlands is incomparably more attuned to the philosophical contexts from which such [genre] plots arise, or the fund of ideas they draw from, and its mix of existential angst and counterculture verve has an analytical intensity that sets its apart from any other such film of its time” (9). Malick’s characters, namely Kit and Holly, are far more believable than figures like Michel Poiccard in Breathless or Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde, to cite two examples. They are presented to us as true-to-life people who, facing their empty lives and identities, begin to realize that becoming outlaws and in Kit’s case killing people might offer them something. In other words, the generic formula – the quality of being notorious outlaw lovers – is something that they can take on and perform, for perhaps nothing else other than to kill time. This all might seem very close to the way Bonnie and Clyde get a kick out of their notoriety and even feed it by sending photos to the press and writing a poem, but the very important difference is that by the end of Badlands, Kit and Holly’s short-lived lives as outlaws amount to an empty gesture, devoid of any clear motivation, meaning, or significance.

Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde

In the chase sequence near the end of Badlands, a parallel between Kit and one of the officers who arrests him is established that points to the film’s singular quality. Kit has just been “captured” – in fact, he gets out of the car and shoots one of the tires to make it look like he could not keep going. He quickly grabs some rocks and puts them in a pile to mark the occasion. He makes note of it to the two police officers, but they hardly seem to care; it is a gesture that recalls other instances in the film where he attempts halfheartedly to mark events. These instances might be compared to moments when Bonnie and Clyde send photos to the newspapers, but here they are stripped of their meaningfulness for the characters. As Kit is cuffed, one of the police officers remarks, “Hell, he ain’t no bigger than I am.” It is true; but not only that, Kit actually resembles this officer; they are both young, attractive shortish men with short brown hair. There is some affinity or mutual respect between the two, Kit and the officer, which is suggested here and developed more in the following sequence. As they walk towards the police car, the young officer does something curious and unremarked upon by the others (or critics, for that matter): he carefully and self-consciously fires a shot off into the landscape towards the left, makes to put his gun away, and abruptly aims towards the same spot, this time not shooting. It is a gesture that recalls many of the unexplained and seemingly pointless gestures that Kit makes (shooting a football, standing on top of a cow, running drills in the forest, etc.). In the car, Kit asks this young officer what kind of rifle he was shooting. “You ever have to open up like that before?” Kit asks. “Nope,” says the officer. He seems to take a reticent pleasure in this dialogue and in the opportunity for heroics that Kit offered him. “Well you boys have performed like a couple of heroes, and don’t think I’m not going to pass it around when we get to town,” Kit tells them. Of course, the remark is amusing for us, for a number of reasons: Kit, in his sincerity, does not realize that he might seem patronizing – when the older officer throws Kit’s hat out of the car, reacting to the remark, Kit states, “You threw out my hat,” as if surprised – nor does he seem to realize that he won’t have the chance to “pass it around.” The young officer goes on to ask Kit why he did it. “I don’t know. I always wanted to be a criminal I guess, just not this big of one. Takes all kinds though,” Kit answers. Then the young officer gives Kit no small pleasure when he remarks to his partner that Kit looks like James Dean.

This odd connection between the young officer and Kit underscores Malick’s highly enigmatic take on the outlaw lovers film. It is as if the young officer is some alternate version of Kit; both receive satisfaction and affirmation by performing well the roles they have chosen. When the officer pointlessly fires the shot, it suggests that he is not all that different than Kit; he just happened to choose the role of the officer rather than the criminal, and he, like Kit, performs the role more than he actually embodies it. Furthermore, Kit’s answer to the officer’s questions about why he did it suggests the insignificant and arbitrary nature of this choice. He does not know why he did it; he always wanted to be a criminal, he guesses, as if it were an afterthought. “It takes all kinds though,” he adds, as if acknowledging that he could have easily chosen something else to be, like a police officer – a role that he evidently respects. Herein lies what distinguishes Badlands from the French New Wave films that undoubtedly inspired it (Breathless and Pierrot le fou, Godard’s film from ‘65) and from Bonnie and Clyde, the film that was the impetus for the New Hollywood and for the American cycle of outlaw lovers films. Godard’s characters are highly inscribed in a cinematic world and as such they perform their roles based on Hollywood characters very well, while at the same time exposing the conventions governing these characters. Unlike Godard, Penn’s characters in Bonnie and Clyde, while to some extent meta-cinematic, are more like real people that are conscious of themselves as iconic, legendary folk heroes. They therefore attain some kind of fulfillment in enacting the legend that seems to go beyond merely adhering to the conventions of the genre, even if that ultimately is the case when the police catch up to them. As they realize their own myth, Bonnie and Clyde’s struggles resonate with the audience as an effort to resist the oppressive forces of society represented by the banks and the police (there is no respect for the police in Bonnie and Clyde). Badlands is quite different on both of these accounts. To some extent, Kit and Holly fashion themselves after clichéd, conventional characters drawn from films: at the most obvious level, Kit looks like James Dean and knows it and Holly even looks a little bit like the character Keechie in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (though she is not aware of this and this is something that no critic has remarked upon). However, Holly and more so Kit are not very good at playing these roles, as Brian Henderson notes in his article “Exploring Badlands” (39). Furthermore, when they model themselves on clichés or conventions it does not relate to meta-commentary à la Godard; it has more to do with their lack of identity and the possibilities these clichés or conventions, however insignificant, might offer them. Kit and Holly’s crime spree, as many have pointed out, lacks the rebellious and socially subversive quality of Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes (see, for example, Morisson and Schurr’s The Films of Terrence Malick, p. 17, or John Orr’s essay “Terrence Malick and Arthur Penn: The Western Re-Myth,” p. 64, in Poetic Visions of America: The Cinema of Terrence Malick). The sequence detailed above suggests as much; Kit could have got as much out of being a heroic police officer as he did from being a notorious criminal, and the choice to be one and not the other seems somewhat arbitrary. This point is driven home when in the very final sequence as Kit rides in the plane to be taken to jail he admires the accompanying officer’s state-issue hat: “Boy I’d like to get me one of them hats.”

Kit’s odd version of the outlaw lover is a motif established from the very beginning of Badlands. The opening sequence and the following expository sequence, which establishes the direction of the plot (Kit and Holly fall in love and flee) is revealing in this sense; it also stands in sharp contrast to the openings of the other New Wave or New Hollywood films, though a look at any sequence in the film would show how singular Badlands is. I will focus here on this expository sequence, which could be considered as starting at the point where Holly’s narration states that she and Kit fell in love, and ends after Kit burns Holly’s house down. I will go a little further and also consider the following sequence, which properly belongs more to the middle portion of the film.

However, first it is necessary to make some remarks about the general style of Badlands, because it marks a significant departure from Godard and from the Godard-influenced style of Bonnie and Clyde. To begin with, in Badlands, as in all of Malick’s films, voice-over narration plays a vital role. Holly narrates Badlands for us in the past tense – evidently, we find out at the end, from the comfort of her life with the son of the lawyer who defended her after she turned herself in. Although it has never been mentioned, this feature links the film up with Pierrot le fou, which also uses voice-over narration. In fact, critics such as Lloyd Michaels and John Orr generally tend to cite Bonnie and Clyde as the major influence on Badlands, but I would argue that its narration and also Kit and Holly’s retreat into nature, which recalls the middle portion of Pierrot where Ferdinand and Marianne live idyllically on the Côté d’Azur, actually suggests that Badlands has a stronger bond with Godard’s film. The narration in each film, though, does not work in exactly the same way. Holly’s narration is more traditional and does not disjoint the narrative in the way’s that Ferdinand’s narration in Pierrot fragments the narrative. But, like Pierrot, the narration in Badlands is suggestive sort of story Holly wants to be in – or, more accurately speaking, the way she wants to shape the events that already happened into a romantic, sentimental story.

However, there is a large disconnect between Holly’s words and the actual events depicted on the screen. Although she narrates the story, she does not, like Ferdinand and Marianne in Godard’s film, author it. These two Godard characters actually have control over the story and will it in different directions. By contrast, as James Morrison and Thomas Schurr note, “The whole point of Holly’s voice-over narration – that odd amalgam of romantic clichés, dime-novel pieties, fervent convictions, and spacey reasoning – is to suggest a constant undercurrent of thought and feeling that never manages to intervene in, and certainly does nothing to halt, the remorseless progression of the action” (17). In other words, not only does Holly not author the story, but I would also add that her remarks are often inadequate, inappropriate, or amusing (to us) in relationship to the actual events depicted. It is, as Henderson points out, an ironic use of narration, where the actual, implied author (Malick) carries on a joke or discourse with us about Holly (41). In addition to this dimension of the voice-over, it also structures the film and makes for its poetic quality. Without Holly’s voice-over, Badlands would not even be a series of episodes; it would be a series of fragments of episodes. Very few events in the film are actually depicted in real time, and those that are shown in real time often represent something that was reoccurring, such as Kit and Holly spending time next to the river. In addition, real-time events are often only depicted as fragments abstracted from a larger narrative. Many images are organized by a montage or do not correspond to a specified point in the narrative. In general, Holly’s voice-over ties all of this together in a seamless way. Though it might seem that the experience of the film would be disjointed, in fact is extremely fluid and cohesive compared to the work of Godard and even Penn in their films.

The other feature that distinguishes Badlands is the beautiful quality of its photography. This is not to suggest that Godard or Penn’s films are unpleasing to the eye, but probably no director other than Malick pays as much attention to the beauty of the landscapes and the natural surroundings of the characters. Nature is, in a sense, a character in all of Malick’s films. Much has been made of this feature of Malick’s work; some link it to an interest in an Emersonian, transcendental understanding of the natural world (see Ben McCann in “’Enjoying the Scenery’: Landscape and the Fetishisation of Nature in Badlands and Days of Heaven” and Lloyd Michaels in Terrence Malick). However one characterizes the role that nature plays in the cinema of Malick (and there is no conclusion on how to make sense of it), it is important to note that as beautiful as it is, it does not encourage a passive spectator. I would suggest that the beauty of Malick’s images of nature actually serves as a distancing device for the narrative; one is constantly reminded that the narrative takes place in the natural world, where the characters are framed up against the beauty of nature – nature is indifferent to them, but they can to varying degrees find some kind of fulfillment in it. In Badlands, nature is the least significant; it takes on a greater role in the following films by Malick. In any case, as pleasing to the eye as Badlands is, in terms of our experience of it, it resembles Godard’s films more than its New Hollywood contemporaries, in that it encourages a critical distance on our part – Godard notoriously encourages a critical, distanced spectator. As John Orr notes, Malick’s aesthetic “demands judgment without destroying pleasure” (69). More specifically, I would characterize Badlands as somewhere in between Godard’s and Penn’s aesthetics. Penn more or less adopts New Wave techniques but not those that are alienating to audiences, and as such his film is essentially pleasurable to watch; on the other end of the scale, Godard makes every attempt to interrupt and disrupt the narrative and engage the spectator with different Brechtian elements (this is especially true of Pierrot le fou). Malick’s film is highly agreeable to watch, but it still leaves us somewhat cold and distanced, and we certainly do not identify with his characters, whose motives we never quite understand. Holly best describes it herself in a bit of her narration after seeing Kit kill his friend Cato and an unknown couple: “At this moment I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kinda blah, like when you’re sittin’ there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jonobroadbent Jonathan Broadbent

    Lovely, thank you. In my opinion every Malick film is an inimitable masterpiece – always different and always the same.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    Jean-Paul Belmondo makes some funny faces in Breathless

  • Jules Winnfield

    A bit contrived, no? But I think you've won over the academy just yet.

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