Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Badlands (1973)

Dir. Terrence R. Malick
Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri 

The phrase ‘killing spree’ implies that there is a certain amount of enjoyment in the killings. That is not the case in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Here the killings are merely a regrettable consequence of two teenage runaways’ bid for freedom. Throughout the entire tale Kit and Holly (The Departed’s Martin Sheen and Coal Miner’s Daughter’s Sissy Spacek) seem numb to the consequence of their actions. They are having their “fun”, and anyone who looks likely to put a stop to it is eliminated. 

Kit is a small-town no one in 1950s South Dakota. His blessing and his curse is that he bears a resemblance to James Dean, the cinematic rebel par excellence. And Kit too is a rebel without a cause. He fixates on his relationship with 15-year-old Holly as his motivation. When her father (Warren Oates) forbids him to see her he shoots him. He then writes his own story, burning the house, leaving a suicide message, building a tree house so that they can live off the land. When asked why he did what he did he answers that he “always wanted to be a criminal”. As a criminal he has an inflated sense of his own importance. He says that he cannot face dying without having a girl there to scream his name. Without the girl he arranges to be captured wearing his stolen hat – it is a look he thinks suits him. He builds a cairn to commemorate the place where he was finally captured. He thinks people will care. And they do. As a captive he grows in stature, confidence and eloquence. He passes around his lighter, pen and comb as momentoes to the law-enforcement officers who brought him in. He has a cinematic vision of himself as rebel, as criminal, as fugitive. 
Something told the Straw Man that he was not on
the Yellow Brick Road anymore
For Holly it is all a game. She plays with makeup, she lives in a treehouse, she questions a dying man about the spider he keeps in a jar. It is like a child’s adventure story – but with murders and manslaughters along the way. She never participates in the killings… but she does nothing to stop them either. She does not engage but she watches. “I didn’t feel shame or fear”, she says, “just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” They are things that happen but she never seems to appreciate the consequences. Neither of them particularly think about what they are doing. They are blank individuals, motivated by primary sensations – hunger, excitement, ‘love’. The love they talk about does not seem particularly romantic; their sexual encounter is certainly not passionate; the fun they have does not actually seem overly enjoyable. Kit’s dialogue and Holly’s narration is based on clichés. They say what they think they ought to say, they behave how they believe they ought to behave. Raised on movies and music and gossip magazines they try and play a role despite never feeling the emotions they claim to experience. Badlands is Camus’ L’Etranger on celluloid.

And if L’Etranger is Camus’ most famous work, Badlands is Terrence Malick’s. His first feature, made with a then-unknown cast (including Malick himself in a small role when the actor origionally cast failed to turn up), on a budget of around $35,000 is now hailed as a classic. It is, in turn, fascinating, engrossing, frustrating, perplexing. No judgement is passed on the actions of Kit and Holly. In this it echoes the hapless killers of In Cold Blood. We follow them and watch their lives. We know they have done wrong, yet we are still willing them on, either to escape into the mountains of Montana or to die in a hail of bullets like Bonnie and Clyde. And in fact neither happens. Yet this is in no way an anticlimax.  

The direction is seemingly sparing – just an odd touch here and there as the two protagonists escape across the great plains leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. Music is also used lightly. Grand choral work by Orff and Satie provides a soundtrack to fires and flights; Nat ‘King’ Cole underscores a waltz in the desert. 

The film is based on a true story – the killings of Charles Starkweather and Caril-Anne Fugate in 1958. Yet this merely provides the original spark. What unfolds on screen, a tale of two dull, dispassionate people killing their way for no good reason across the dull, dispassionate desert of Dakota is a haunting vision with a life of its own. 

What have I learnt about South Dakota?
The landscape seen in Badlands is much less appealing than the sweeping vistas of Dances with Wolves. This landscape is not epic. It is dull: mile after mile of dull grey dust. The promise and excitement of Montana is signified by the shadow of mountains on the horizon, growing gradually larger. The route west takes them away from towns, away from the woods and rivers of their homes, across a seemingly never-ending Stygian plain. Gas pipes run alongside the roadway – Kit uses these to refill the car, referring to the run-off as “trip gas”. They later find someone drilling in the ground, presumably for more fossil fuels. 

The towns that Holly knows in South Dakota are not big ones. Cheyenne, Wyoming, is described as being “a city bigger and grander than I’d ever seen” (though Rapid City, where Kit wishes the Soviets would drop the bomb, is roughly the same size as Cheyenne and Sioux City is twice as big). The towns don’t seem too terrible though. The area where Holly and her father live is nice and neat in a pleasant Victoria style. They later on invide a rich man’s house – a large grand affair full of antiques and with sweeping grounds dotted with statuary. There must be money to be made in the towns of South Dakota, even if the countryside is bleak. Still, with a name like ‘Fort Dupree’ the area’s frontier past is alluded to. 

Can we go there?
The comments about the pleasant towns and the rich man’s house must be taken with a pinch of salt however, as the film was not shot in South Dakota. Instead Otero and Bent Counties on the eastern Colorado plains served as the principal shooting locations (the sheriff who captures Kit can be seen to have a Bent County badge on his uniform). The gas station where Kit was finally spotted by the police is in Delhi, Las Animas County. However, the rich man’s house was actually two separate Colorado dwellings further west. The interiors were the Rosemount Museum in Pueblo, south of Colorado Sprungs; exterior shots were of the Bloom Mansion in Trinidad, further south again.  

Fort Dupree, the town from which Holly and Kit flee doesn’t really exist. There is a town called Dupree, but it doesn’t sound much like the town depicted in the movie: the real Dupree is located on the territory of the Cheyenne River Indian Reserve, 70% of the population are native American, and its surrounding Ziebach County is the fourth poorest in the US based on per capita income. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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