[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Art, because it creates its own reality, can’t be self-deluding, no matter how “unreal” it may seem. What it can do is distort reality by rearranging life’s subject matter into new and unfamiliar forms. Thus, in Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first directorial project, Kit Carruthers’ personal fantasy is distinct from Malick’s artistic fantasy, although the two run closely parallel and indeed often seem inseparable. Kit (played by Martin Sheen) insulates himself within the brash shield of a James Dean tough-guy image to the point where, by the end of the movie, all he is concerned with is going out in style. Reality, for Kit, ultimately becomes irrelevant, just as, in a similar sense, our normal conceptions of what goes on in the world apply less and less to what we are seeing on the screen as the movie progresses.
This is not surprising, because Badlands, we soon realize, is not so much a violent, romantic movie as it is a movie about violence and romantic heroes. Kit is finally closer to Pierrot le fou than he is to Clyde Barrow, and the violence we see is not just violence, but stylized violence—or, more precisely, violence to which the characters react stylistically. Hence there is an added dimension of artistic distance (a distance created by the filmmaker) which separates Kit and Holly, not from the screen’s reality—which is anything the director wishes to make it—but most certainly from life’s reality. As Malick asks us to become less concerned with motivation than with manner, the movie itself “escapes” the realm of objective credibility. In some ways I think it is unfortunate that Malick lets his film go as far as it does in this direction. He has the potential for a more subtly ambiguous movie than he has created.
Occasionally, the reality of the violence is qualified just enough to give us an uneasy, nearly surreal impression of things somehow out of kilter. Kit shoots his old friend Cato, then opens the door for him; Holly wonders if Cato is upset. We are not sure if we should laugh, or be horrified at Kit’s insensitivity to his own irony. The ambivalence we feel is perturbing because, although the humor is there, we don’t like the idea of laughing at somebody’s getting shot. Moments like this, however, in which credibility hangs in the balance, are the exception rather than the rule. Malick loses his patience and turns to the pointedly absurd, showing us Kit and Holly speeding, very literally, across the open prairie in a stolen Cadillac. Later, Kit’s tendency toward self-destruction takes the form of a flippant disregard for his fate and we see him clowning it up with the deputy who had previously aimed his thirty-ought-six at Kit’s head. There is a definite sense of increasing distance established between not only us and Kit’s reality, but between us and the movie’s reality. Both begin to seem as unreachable as the distant, shadowy mountains toward which Kit and Holly drive but never reach.
Screenplay, Direction, and Production: Terrence Malick. Cinematography: Brian Probyn, Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner. Music: Orff & Kitman, Erik Satie, James Taylor, George Tipton.
The Players: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Roman Bieri.
Copyright © 1974 Rick Hermann