Tuesday, June 7, 2022

“Love is Strange”: Terrence Malick’s “Badlands”

In the wake of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, Hollywood became fascinated with stories of young lovers on the run, fleeing from crimes they’d committed in the heat of passion. I’ve finally seen one of the best of these, 1973’s Badlands. It was based on the actual story of drifter Charles Starkweather, who was executed at age 20 for murdering eleven Midwesterners circa 1958, and his companion, Caril Ann Fugate, who threw in her lot with him at age fourteen. Grim subject matter, to be sure, but this film marked the directorial debut of Terrence Malick, whose stop-and-start career has produced a modest number of exquisite feature films, sometimes with twenty-year gaps between them. (Today, if IMDB is to be trusted, he’s busy with short films and documentaries.)

 Though Malick’s output is rather limited, his films have a visual and emotional impact that makes them memorable. The loss of innocence is for him an essential subject, no more so than in Badlands, which is narrated by Sissy Spacek, at the beginning of her long career.  (Though about 22 at the time, she easily comes across as the fifteen-year-old Holly, the film’s stand-in for Caril Ann Fugate.) Her voiceover narration, a frequent feature of Malick’s work, is delivered in the flat, matter-of-fact, almost shell-shocked tones of someone who can’t truly process the horrors she’s seen. Holly, we feel, is a good girl at heart, but one so benumbed by boredom and loneliness in a small Dakota town that she easily falls in with the dangerous Kit Carruther (Martin Sheen) because he resembles James Dean. It’s a strong reminder of the power of movies to shape young lives.

 Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks for money and for excitement. Kit, a philosopher at heart, has no particular use for money, but he finds his excitement in aiming his pistol and firing at whatever (or whomever) gets in his way. This includes his sweetheart’s father, and several good Samaritans. Lean and hungry-looking, Kit is tender to Holly but quickly brutal to everyone else. The role is a strong follow-up to Sheen’s screen debut as a thug terrorizing the occupants of a late-night New York subway car in 1967’s The Incident. Looking back on it, his persona in those early days was a far cry from the gravitas of his more recent roles, like that of the U.S. President in The West Wing.

 In what was to become typical of Malick films, most of the action is set outdoors, in a lush natural setting. The production designer was Jack Fisk, a future Oscar nominee who would marry Sissy Spacek the following year. (Remarkably for a movie couple, they’re still together, living on a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia.) Fisk started out making low-budget features for Roger Corman, as did Badlands’ ace cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, who went on to shoot both The Silence of the Lambs and Star Wars.

 Another Malick predilection is to score his tough-minded, deeply contemporary movies with elegant classical music, conveying a sense that the story somehow exists outside of time. Badlands contains snippets of Eric Satie and Carl Orff, along with a dreamy Nat “King” Cole ballad and Mickey & Sylvia’s period-appropriate “Love is Strange.”   

 That last is a key takeaway from Badlands. Love definitely leads Kit and Holly in strange directions. The film’s title, by the way, refers to a bleak but picturesque region of South Dakota that the characters see in the distance but never quite reach. An apt metaphor, of course, for the lethal aimlessness of life for two drifters who don’t quite know what they want or need.



  1. A fabulous essay. Don’t know which might be better, your written voice or the movie. Both seem Oscar worthy. Anonymous M Levinson.

  2. From your mouth to the Academy's ears, anonymous!