August 4, 2011 by abbyo
Confession time: I am not a big Terrence Malick fan. At best, my relationship to his work is tumultuous. I get why he’s an important director. I do. He’s got a stunning visual sense, and I appreciate his particular gestalt for stories that are at once small and large in scope (note how I’m hoping you artier types will forgive me because I know how to use gestalt and tumultuous in a sentence). But he’s just never made anything that satisfied me as a moviegoer. I’m someone who likes structure and dialogue. I like watching characters and stories first, and thinking about the ideas they illustrate later. Malick has a much more philosophical approach, where he first takes a concept, then acts it out with characters that are less like people and more like illustrations. To put it in musical terms, I like three-minute rock songs with a catchy hook. Malick likes Shoegaze—the longest, most introspective kind possible.
I’ve had two recent Malick viewing experiences that both helped me understand what it is I don’t care for about his work, and gave me an interesting perspective on how that particular style has evolved. About a month ago, I saw “Days of Heaven” for the first time, after meaning to see it for years, and came away really disappointed. It wasn’t necessarily a case of a movie being oversold, since it was really as gorgeous as it’s purported to be. But I thought the film felt detached, and kind of soulless. All the characters in the film (even narrator Linda Manz) are viewed from a distance. We see them, and occasionally hear them, but we never get to know them, or understand their motives. It’s like we’re watching them through a window, just a little peek at one story in a larger part of history. This voyeuristic approach, which to me serves to show how small and fleeting our lives are, is an interesting one in concept. But in practice, it gets old quickly. “Days of Heaven” was one of the most gorgeous films I’d seen, but one whose lack of substance in other areas I found irritating.
I was hoping “Badlands,” the director’s first film, one I’d heard was different from his other work, might give me what I was looking for. I’d heard it was more scripted, that there was more going on in terms of plot structure. I thought, too, that there might be a little more heart. Not really. “Badlands” is just as distanced, just as emotionless. However, if I’d seen this movie before I’d seen “Days of Heaven” or “The New World,” I think I might have gotten a very different impression of Malick, since here that emotionless distance is used to a different, more effective purpose.
The protagonist of “Badlands” (if you could call her that) is Holly (Sissy Spacek) a 15-year-old girl who’s moved to South Dakota with her father. She takes up with Kit (Martin Sheen) a dropout greaser 10 years her senior who looks like James Dean, and is trying to cultivate a rebel persona to match. Kit kills Holly’s disapproving father, and takes her along on a killing spree that stretches all the way out to Montana. Holly, whose flowery narration suggests she’s romanticizing the situation beyond all reason, thinks of the whole thing as a grand adventure. George Tipton’s playful score amplifies the feeling with marimba music that sounds like it belongs in “The Swiss Family Robinson.”
Holly doesn’t seem much bothered by the bodies left in Kit’s wake. She occasionally wishes he wouldn’t shoot people so much, but hardly reacts when he commits the deeds. Indeed, Holly’s and Kit’s attitudes toward the murders are both eerily blasé, and over quickly. Holly barely sheds a tear when Kit kills her father, and is completely willing to be his accomplice and go on the run with him, even though she doesn’t see their relationship as permanent (when she wonders what her future husband will be like, it’s clear she assumes he’s someone she hasn’t met yet). She doesn’t even seem to care much whether she goes or stays, she just wants to be with Kit, so she allows him to make all the decisions.
Kit, however, is playing for keeps, and is determined to go out in a blaze of glory, Bonnie and Clyde-style. His rising body count is just for the sake of his criminal reputation. He tells Holly that when he’s caught by the cops, he wants a girl to scream his name as the lawmen shoot him full of holes. In fact, the only time he really loses his cool is when Holly tells him she’s going to stop running with him as the police are closing in. Some may argue that it’s because she’s coldly dumping him after they’ve been through so much, but I think it’s because Holly’s leaving Kit doesn’t fit with his aesthetic. In his mind, they’re supposed to go down together, and she’s cheating her way out.
“Badlands” is also notable as part of Malick’s filmography because of how much it informs “Days of Heaven,” his next movie. The flat, emotionless narration is back, this time in the form of Linda Manz’s little girl character. For all the similarities, she sounds like she could be Holly’s grandmother. The plains setting, with its varied shades of gold and blue and green is also repeated. “Badlands” also teases the fascination with nature that carries into pretty much everything Malick’s done since. We’ve also got the sense of emotional distance from all of the main characters, but unlike Holly and Kit who are more easily understood, Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard all seem to have an emotional depth that would probably be compelling, if it were allowed to be developed. “Badlands” shows a series of cold-blooded murders done by cold-blooded individuals. “Heaven” takes a single crime of passion involving complex people, and renders it frustratingly passionless.
But while I will say that I liked “Badlands” more than “Days of Heaven,” I still can’t say that I really enjoyed it. It’s not a movie I’d choose to watch more than once. It had some interesting moments, but I still found it kind of dull. I found myself checking the time counter on my laptop more than a few times. It didn’t really disappoint me, the way “Days of Heaven” did, but its lack of empathy, or really any feeling at all, left me ambivalent, the way “The New World” did when I first saw it. I think “Badlands” has finally proven to me that while I do respect Malick’s ideas and his technical ability, I just don’t like watching his movies. I’m not saying they’re bad by any means, they’re just not the kind of movies I watch movies for, just like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart isn’t the kind of music I listen to music for. But please, don’t judge me based on my dislike of an important director and his important movies. Remember, I still know how to use gestalt in a sentence.