The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we’re going to examine the decades-spanning career of one of the most important filmmakers of this generation and generations prior: Terrence Malick.
I’m just gonna come out and say it: Terrence Malick is my favorite filmmaker of all time. His films are like no one else’s. Try as people do, and people do it often, his style can’t quite be replicated. Each one feels so different from the last, yet at the same time, they all feel like part of this whole, larger, singular canvas. And above all else, they emotionally resonate with me in ways that few other films can.
With his latest film, the already hugely divisive To the Wonder, releasing next month, what better way to honor this master of form, substance, and emotion than with a retrospective of his very own?
Starting now, we begin The Terrence Malick Retrospective with his incendiary debut: Badlands.
“Kit made a solemn vow that he would always stand beside me and let nothing come between us. He wrote this out in writing, put the paper in a box with some of our little tokens and things, then sent it off in a balloon he’d found while on the garbage route. His heart was filled with longing as he watched it drift off. Something must’ve told him that we’d never live these days of happiness again, that they were gone forever.”
Is there a better quote in Badlands that fully captures the thematic connection that would later define all of Terrence Malick’s films? Portrayed by Sissy Spacek, Holly’s voice-over narration–one example of many in the film–epitomizes the two main themes that all of Terrence Malick’s works constantly communicate: The pain of transition, and our obsession as a species with making a mark or finding a purpose in our seemingly minuscule existence. As Holly laments that Kit’s days of heaven are all but behind him now, we see the balloon drift off into the ether, filled with the trinkets that define who these two people are, never to be seen again.
Badlands is commonly believed to be inspired by the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, but it’s very clear that this isn’t just a fictionalized retelling of the same events with the names changed, but its own standalone story. The lovers/culprits in question this time are Kit (A breakout role for then-TV-actor Martin Sheen) and Holly (Spacek in her second big-screen role), who fall in love in South Dakota, end up killing Holly’s father, and are on the run before they know it.
Compared to the rest of Malick’s filmography, this is a quintessential debut feature. Everything that will come to define his work in the future is hinted at in Badlands, but not quite realized to their fullest potential. There are elements of Malick’s philosophical ponderings, visual fixation on nature, evocative voice-overs, and the two connective themes mentioned above, but they’re all presented in a nascent fashion. That doesn’t make Badlands any less of as masterpiece, however. In fact, it’s part of the film’s success. The movie is just as free, experimental, and unsure of itself as its main characters are, and thus fits like a glove. But fans of his later work thinking that his first film is just more of the same will be surprised to find that it’s his least Malick-like film.
That first-time feel remains incredibly important, especially because of its historical context. Badlands is a cultural landmark not just because of its quality, or just the fact that it announced Terrence Malick as a talent to be reckoned with, but because it was part of the huge boom of American auteur-driven breakouts of the 70s alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather, George Lucas’s Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, this list goes on. These were films and directors that challenged American filmmaking standards and conventions for the rest of time, and Badlands was just another small wheel in that great big machine of the 70s movie misfits changing the Hollywood landscape around them.
What made Badlands truly revolutionary for its time was its depictions of the killer-couple in question. A somewhat similar film was released six years earlier, and is also a revolutionary cultural landmark: Bonnie and Clyde. In that film, the titular protagonists were undoubtedly meant to be antiheroes, and their actions were always shown with a sense of malice. Even if the characters didn’t know that their actions were morally wrong, the film certainly did.
It’s interesting to compare it to Badlands in that sense, because when we see Kit and Holly offing all sorts of people in their cross-country road-trip (in fairly gruesome detail for its time), the violence feels completely and utterly cold and strangely hollow. Perhaps it felt shocking at the time of its release, but today it carries no weight, which is exactly the point. The film is so concerned with Kit and Holly’s affair that the various murders surrounding them are seen merely as inconveniences. Adding to this sense of detachment is the film’s depiction of Kit, who’s so gosh darn likable and charming that you can’t seem to help but root for him even when he constantly does the wrong thing.
What’s so fascinating about Badlands is that while it certainly contains the humanism that would define all of Malick’s subsequent films, this is without a doubt his coldest, driest, most detached film. It still contains beautiful, transcendentally warm moments between its two leads, but it also treats the rest of the world around them like a video game level–a series of obstacles that only brings them ever closer to their eventual “Game Over”.
But in actuality, that’s all their fate is meant for too. Like the big balloon just floating off into nothingness, no matter how much Kit and Holly make their mark in the cultural landscape through their actions, they will still wind up, at the end of the day, two more souls wafting through the universe, so small in comparison to the encroaching nature that surrounds them.
Indeed, all of Malick’s films are about this fact. This is why you always see so many shots of trees in Malick films; it is the trees that will outlive us all. There are bushes that are 11,700 years old. Yet even in the Bible, the oldest living human reaches about 900 years before reaching his end.
You’d think that a man who makes films all about this existential dilemma would make wholly cynical films, but the work of Terrence Malick is the exact opposite. If anything, he finds solace in the fact that our lives are able to have so much meaning and power, even when we are but small specks in a vast unknowing-ness. Malick is the kind of man who finds this kind of meaning in all the events of this planet. The crashing of the waves is as powerful as the loss of a loved one. A child playing is as beautiful as the sun’s shine. And a balloon drifting away until it’s no more is as monumental as a man losing his life. Thus, Malick spends his time focusing on the microcosm of Kit and Holly’s relationship, while the macrocosm of the rest of the world is nothing but background noise slowly getting louder and louder.
Badlands is about two people who desperately want to be the center of the universe, but find themselves being torn apart by the rest of the world, by the rest of nature, and by the rest of the universe. We will always be at odds with nature until we are consumed with it. And our marks will not be made by piles of rocks hastily piled together on the side of the road, but by what we make of our existence, and who we share it with. After all, that pile of rocks has to fall sometime.
There’s so much more to Badlands that can be dissected and discussed, but there’s only so much I can cover. Regardless, the film was a major success that made stars out of both Sheen and Spacek and cemented Malick in the film landscape forever. As is always the case with this kind of first-time home-run, everyone wanted to know what else Malick had to offer with more experience and a more assured hand. Next week we’ll take a look at another of his masterpieces: Days of Heaven.