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June 24, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | June 24, 2008 |

If America can be said to have a metaphor, it’s one of vastness. Terrence Malick finds the essence of America in the Midwestern frontier, on the endless plains and open skies, that metaphorical playground where Man intersects with Nature - what happens when we’re confronted with the brutal immensity of the open Earth? The frontier should serve as the ultimate inspiration of freedom and the destruction of boundaries. Instead, Malick finds only dread. His characters suffer an alienation so profound it’s palpable, caused by the sheer loneliness of this frontier, this vastness and openness. Malick knows what kind of longings this isolation provokes, and the terrible American response to a dream deferred.

Badlands is an ostensibly semi-factual account of the murders of Charlie Starkweather, a young man who went on an aimless killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the 1950s, dragging a vacant, underage girlfriend along for the ride. The profundity of this story was its perceived pointlessness - these weren’t calculated acts or murders of passion. Starkweather seemed completely divorced from the inhumanity of his actions, using death as a wand to eliminate minor obstacles to his stupidity and low social status. His girlfriend, the clueless Caril Ann Fugate, neither condemned nor condoned his actions, riding along with Starkweather and observing his murders with robotic passivity, jotting down events in her notebook in the manner of a teen gossip rag.

It’s no wonder Malick would find this story so archetypal. He’s not interested in judging the callowness of these kids or creating a moral polemic. He doesn’t even bother to explain their violent or detached behavior, which clearly isn’t based on concepts of justification anyway. It’s this lack of judgment which seems to be the point - this lack of understanding between the causal world of matter and human possibilities is what the director is after

Filling Starkweather’s shoes in this story is Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a deadbeat in a claustrophobic rural waste. Kit is a loser, to put it charitably, a poor shlub whose generous self-estimation is at odds with everything around him. He’s too vain to face the truth, too lazy to work and improve his life, and too stupid to realize why the world doesn’t just give him what he wants. He cultivates a vague resemblance to James Dean by slicking back his hair and leaning on his hot rod, all while bouncing through motley day-jobs as a garbage collector or ranch hand. It’s obvious this young man has no idea who he is, finding comfort as a simulacrum of media culture in lieu of any actual depth or personality. Kit isn’t fooling anyone but himself until a young and equally dumb Holly (Sissy Spacek) is lured to his artifice.

Kit takes up with Holly, much to the annoyance of her father (Warren Oates), who correctly sees Kit as a callow charlatan. One day he denounces Kit as white trash and Kit guns him down, igniting the flippant killing spree. The lovers take to the road; they build a fortress in the woods, living off of stolen chickens and listening to transistor radios. When caught they flee to the endless highway with a vanguard of policemen on their tails. Holly may be a more unsettling character than Kit. Where Kit reacts to his alienation with delusion and violence, Holly reacts with nonplussed apathy. Her nasal voiceover permeates the film as she vapidly records and comments on Kit’s wayward murders with all the insight of high school gossip column, giving the film and the characters their dialectic. It isn’t malignant callousness, this is all she’s capable of feeling; Kit, by contrast, seems to feel deeply, yet can’t fathom the moral transgression of killing another person.

Malick captures Kit and Holly in wide vista shots and panoramas; as always with Malick, the landscape is an implicit character that damns and mesmerizes the characters within. Sheen and Spacek give some of the most impressive work of their careers; Malick tamps down their performances until all superficial agencies disappear - they think and act and react with utter realism. The behavior of these impossibly shallow kids weaned on the mock profundity of a new generation obsessed with media culture is certainly disturbing, but Badlands never becomes a moral expose. Malick isn’t concerned with the dubiousness of judgment or even of psychological explanation. This is a film about human experience, about the American myth of freedom which should liberate but ultimately isolates and oppresses. But whether or not you’re interested in any critical angle, it also happens to be hypnotically beautiful. Badlands rewards the viewer in, ultimately, whatever way he or she chooses to be rewarded - be it the brilliance of its philosophical musings or the beauty of its form. When I’m in the mood to think, Badlands gives me more layers to unravel; when I’m not, I find dark humor, engrossing action and stunning scenery. Whichever happens to be the case, I’m always blown away. Now this is fucking art.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

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Film | June 24, 2008 |

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