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

This escape sequence is followed by another, equally beautiful sequence of Kit and Holly’s retreat into nature. It exemplifies what becomes a far more significant theme in Malick’s later film, the role of nature and landscapes. With Holly’s voice-over and the theme music of the film, Carl Orff’s short piece “Gassenhauer,” Malick shows us beautiful close-ups of nature: branches, insects, leaves, water, etc. This is followed by images of Kit and Holly’s life in the forest as they build a tree-house and Kit prepares for potential attackers. The narration, as before, is often amusing and ironic, for example when Holly tells us, “We had our bad moments, like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown, so I could watch.” This sequence of the film has a clear relationship with a similar sequence in Pierrot le fou, where Ferdinand and Marianne live idyllically in nature for a portion of the film. In both, the sequences seems to pull the narrative away from its more obvious direction, and in both, it relates to the characters playing different kinds of roles. Morisson and Schur note that the nature sequence demonstrates only that Kit abandons one identity and adopts another, that of the noble savage (15). The difference in Pierrot le fou is that Ferdinand and Marianne are very self-conscious of their excursion into nature as being a diversion from the intended direction of the story. Furthermore, the fulfillment they get from it only relates to Ferdinand’s satisfaction in getting to construct this part of his life based on the literature he prefers. It is clear that with Malick, as much as this sequence for Kit and Holly is clichéd role playing, nature actually is a source of transcendence for them, even if they don’t attain it. The sheer beauty of the sequence and the way certain shots work suggest that it is Malick’s vision of the story and not the characters (close-ups of insects, for example). After this sequence, Badlands continues to unfold in fragmented episodes, but with less extensive narration and fewer montages.

When Kit and Holly end their journey, it seems that they reach some new level of understanding about their actions. Kit realizes that he enjoys the attention of the police officers, and this seems to validate his prior actions in some sense. In his rapport with the young police officer, his alter ego of sorts, he finds a version of himself that is only different in that the officer is on the other side of the law. When Kit remarks, “I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess,” it’s a casual realization which might account to some extent for his actions, but it is an uninspired explanation, just as his crimes were uninspired. What is important is that it is a remark made in retrospect, as if he is saying, “I guess that is why.” There might not be any reason for Kit’s actions – maybe he did always want to be a criminal, but he does not even seem sure of this – but he only finds some kind of significance in them, however small, when he realizes that he has become a minor celebrity to the police. And if we were talking about Bonnie and Clyde, this explanation might adequately justify their murders – except of course Bonnie and Clyde remains enemies with the forces of law and order. Ultimately, there is no complete reasoning behind Kit, and that is part of the beauty of the film. In a similar way, we might say that Holly, in deciding to narrate this story for us, also reaches a new understanding of her time with Kit, but where Kit’s explanation is vague, hers is inadequate and inappropriate; that is why her narration works in the way it does. We might add that the important moment of realization for Holly, if there is one, occurs after the events of the film, and the significance of her time with Kit that she comes to understand might just be that it led to her marrying the son of the lawyer who defended her.

As the end credits of Badlands roll, we do not have the impression that we’ve seen a destruction of the old Hollywood, a radical revision of a common genre, or a film that breathes new life into American cinema. Somehow Malick’s film is apart from all of these concerns and in a category of its own. The outlaw lover template is a factor, to be sure, but only in that it just happens to be the adventure Kit and Holly choose. And even this choice seems to be made with little consideration. TC mark

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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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