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Trouble in the heartland: The lyrical detachment of Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’

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Badlands

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“He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.”

Delivered in voiceover by Sissy Spacek, no single line better summates the combination of fairy tale lyricism and existential gravitas that forms the artistic dichotomy of “Badlands,” Terrence Malick’s loose fictionalization of the late-1950s Starkweather-Fugate murder spree, which still stands as the most auspicious and enigmatic directorial debut in movie history.

Spacek, in just her second significant film role, plays Holly Sargis, the teenage girlfriend of Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers, the world’s coolest garbage man.

When we first see Kit, he’s kneeling over a dead dog on the side of the road of his garbage route. Dressed in tight blue jeans, a tighter white T-shirt and cowboy boots, he’s the self-cultivated image of James Dean, whose famous “dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today” quote preceded his premature death behind the wheel of a 1955 Porsche Spyder.

Death is omnipresent for Kit, a hero in the existential mold of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” who kills with the same detachment that attends his observance of a dead cow in the feedlots at another of his menial jobs.

Yet Kit is also obsessed with permanence and the concept of his own manufactured legacy. After he has sex with Holly for the first time, he suggests that they crush their hands with a stone so that they “never forget what happened today.” Following the shooting of Holly’s father, he commemorates the occasion with a 45 rpm recording at a coin-operated “Voice-O-Graph” gramophone booth. Later, when he’s cornered by the police at the end of his Midwestern trail of blood, he stacks a pile of rocks to mark the exact spot of his self-orchestrated capture.

“Kit doesn’t see himself as anything sad or pitiable, but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and to future generations,” Malick said in a 1975 interview with British film magazine Sight & Sound. “Like Holly, like a child, he can only really believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, like other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions—they’re all sort of abstract for him.”

“Badlands” is often lumped in the couple on the run subgenre of crime movies with Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” and Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” but what raises Malick’s debut above even Arthur Penn’s very great “Bonnie and Clyde” is its contrapuntal juxtaposition of exquisite cinematography and childlike, matter-of-fact voiceover.

In the film’s most lyrical sequence, Kit and Holly hide out in the woods in a primitive tree house—a kind of magical playground beyond time or space. As Holly looks at sepia-toned photo slides through her father’s handheld stereopticon, she ponders the essence of her existence, wondering where she would be if her mom had never met her dad and what her future holds, asking: “What’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like? What’s he doing, right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me? Does it show in his face?”

Malick, in the same Sight & Sound interview, suggested that his primary influences for “Badlands” were such children’s literature dreamscapes as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Swiss Family Robinson” and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries.

“I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like ‘Treasure Island.’ I hoped this would, among other things, take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality,” Malick said. “Children’s books are full of violence. Long John Silver slits the throats of the faithful crew. Kit and Holly even think of themselves as living in a fairy tale.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of “Badlands,” which debuted at a stacked 1973 New York Film Festival that also included Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” and Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore.”

Whether by plan or fortuitous coincidence, the Criterion Collection is releasing “Badlands” in Blu-ray and DVD editions on March 19, with extras that include a making-of documentary with Sheen, Spacek and art director Jack Fisk.

If you’ve never seen “Badlands,” or already own the bare bones DVD from Warner Bros. with the widescreen edition on one side of the disc and the pan and scan fullscreen version on other, it goes without saying that the Criterion release is an essential purchase.

If you need any more convincing, I refer you to Sheen’s comments in a May 2011 article of GQ magazine.

“I've worked with Mike Nichols, with Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg, but ‘Badlands’ is the film I'm proudest of,” Sheen said. “I don't mean to denigrate any of the others. It's just the raw facts.”

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