In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.
It seems every creatively bankrupt director has at some time or another been flying between New York and Los Angeles, and in their boredom looked out the window and noticed a country going by. ‘Eureka!’ they say into their airline pretzels, and yet another film involving sociopathic killers on the American Highway is born.
It seems any time characters are in middle America they are in a rush to get out. Once on the road there will be quirkiness, killing and/or bonding. Implicit in the conceit is that you have to be insane, stupid or both to live in the middle of portion of the USA.
Imagine if the number of films dedicated to this cluttered genre was proportional to its subject, I envisage highways choked with traffic jams of thrillkillers during ‘spree high season’. When trusting local halfwits are not readily available, perhaps they resort to eliminating each other. Perhaps that is what has kept their populations in check all these years.
Among many of this genre suggested for but absent from this book are Kalifornia, Clay Pigeons, Wild at Heart, Natural Born Killers and True Romance. So why aren’t these films in the book? Because a genius, a poet and a painter on celluloid named Terrence Malick did it right the first time with Badlands.
In 1958, America was mesmerised by the killing spree of Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril-Ann Fugate, young Nebraskans who had internalised the cool attitudinising of antiheroes like James Dean and the romantic nihilism of movies such as The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955).
Martin Sheen and a very young Sissy Spacek portray Kit and Holly, a disaffected couple in a town out on the prairies where anything is better than nothing, and where a loser like Kit offers Holly more excitement than a scrutinising father (Warren Oates) and clarinet lessons can offer.
From the start, in her voice-over narration, Holly uses the unnatural and flowery diction of the gossip magazines she reads. She exaggerates their banal love and fumbling attempts at sex as the stuff of romances novels. When Holly escalates to killing, starting with her father, she rationalises his hair-trigger lethality with the same tabloid embellishment.
One of the themes that flow through Malick’s films is the communal relationship humans have with the laws of nature, and that impulse has an implicit synchronicity with those laws; this concept goes a long way in explaining the characters’ motivations.
Malick’s visual sense has always been far more advanced than most of his contemporaries. He alternates carefully framed shots of intimacy in closed spaces, with sweeping vistas of earth and sky. There is a trance element to this film. It moves at such a slow pace, and is portrayed with such distance, that the narrative and the characters assume the same effect. Colour, physical dimension, perfectly nuanced music (Carl Orff) and low-key acting by the leads create something that’s more a tone poem on America.
In the absence of any other perceived texture to their world, Kit and Holly create their own notion of it. In their world the prospect of something else, anything else, eclipses all the heartbreak of their situation. There is no comfort in the blandness of parental figures. In fact, to their thinking, all parental figures are themselves suspect. By Kit and Holly’s estimation, if these authority figures had any sense, any ambition, any value at all, they wouldn’t live in such a place. This allows Kit and Holly to turn their lethal self-loathing outward.
Both these kids substitute their own fantasies for any sense of order or responsibility. They feel no worth and even less power. In finding each other, they connect. They are able to actualise their hopes and find their sense of worth in becoming the other’s ideal.
Kit is genuinely likeable and endearing – except for the whole ‘shooting people’ thing. This is typified when Kit shoots his friend with a shotgun, only to hold the screen door for him when he needs help inside the house.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer(s): Terrence Malick
Runtime(s): 95 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.