As frightening figures show beyond a doubt, gun violence is endemic to American society as it is to no other country. Yet mainstream media fail to investigate the root causes of this violent plague. Nothing better illustrates the congenital bond between gun violence and North American society than the nation’s cinema. From westerns to superhero blockbusters, Peckinpah to Tarantino, gun violence seems as intrinsic to American movies as singing and dancing is in Bollywood. Classic westerns stressed the inevitable need for violence in order to secure the good of the nation and the frontier’s security. Peckinpah treated that same issue with cynicism while Tarantino served up a post-modern, cartoonish alternative. In “Badlands,” currently celebrating its 40th anniversary with revival screenings around the country, Terrence Malick frames violence under a singular, revealing viewpoint by exploring its inextricability from notions of beauty and freedom. The movie helps put the problem in context.
Malick’s first feature features recognizably American attributes that have come to define the national cultural matrix. Without succumbing to the precepts of any given cinematic genre, “Badlands” flirts with the hallmarks of a road movie and captures the wonder of the American landscape. Based on a true story, the film recounts the romance between Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), and the trail of blood and senseless deaths left in its wake.
The prelude to their killing spree is one of the most impeccably rendered love stories ever captured on celluloid. Sparse, suggestive dialogue is accompanied by Holly’s introspective voiceover reminiscing about their simultaneously graceful and brutal parable. As a result of her perspective leading the way, nothing about them is outwardly repellent or suspicious — killing is “just” a way to keep their love story going, though neither of them seems to have a destination in mind.
As they gun down Holly’s father in addition to all others standing in their way, violence is the very prerequisite for their relationship to take off. Their need to be together presupposes the deaths of those around them. Violence is not a collateral effect but the very basis of their affair — which, until word gets out, remains private. They don’t have to justify it to anyone but themselves. In “Badlands,” murder is a necessary act for the sake of love.
It goes without saying that these characters lack any moral compass. None of Kit’s murders are premeditated and according to him they cannot be helped. The same irrational force that brings them together in the first place is also the one pressing the trigger with distressing nonchalance. By probing the existential depths and contradictions of the American Dream, Malick exposes the sinister fascination with violence running through its history. As often in his films, meaning originates from images rather than narrative devices. Symptoms are revealed rather than explained. But “Badlands” still provides a cogent overview of violent tendencies.
A sort of modern Adam and Eve, Kit and Holly try to live the rural dream of the pioneers in the wilderness. Yet like those biblical figures, their crimes will not go unpunished; even so, Kit remains an object of almost holy fascination. Before bidding the last farewell smile to Holly, Kit holds a near-amicable chat with the national guards and the policemen that have just caught him. The authorities appear to be fascinated by Kit’s violent exploits all the way through to his execution. The dreams of fame and freedom, in American history and cinema, have often been accomplished with the help of a gun. Forty years after its making, the bloody epic of “Badlands” still presents a timely reminder of how much the roots of violence emerge from the American Dream.
“Badlands” is currently screening at New York’s FIlm Forum.