In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.
The original tagline for Terrence Malick’s 1973 directorial debut is an unashamedly straightforward oversimplification of an unabsorbing yet uncannily masterful narrative.
Based on the true life saga of Charles Starkweather’s murderous rampage through Nebraska and Wyoming, (most famously immortalised in Bruce Springsteen’s own ‘Nebraska’ album) ‘Badlands’ documents the doomed love affair between disaffected greaser Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis, a naïve and socially awkward school girl.
Initially, ‘Badlands’ makes for an aesthetically pleasing viewing experience – although not in an overtly superficial sense. As is now self-evident to me from watching ‘To The Wonder’, ‘The Thin Red Line’ and more recently ‘The Tree Of Life’; Malick is a uniquely versatile film maker – a visionary with a profound sense of imagination. Yet what, I wondered, could be so profound about the retelling of an infamous killing spree? Can murder ever hold a more prophetic meaning? And if so, is it possible to avoid glamourising violence whilst retaining the essence of zealous gratuity that often defines it?
As Malick’s original ‘calling card’ – considered by himself and critics alike as his most definitive work – ‘Badlands’ emits a chillingly casual air of contempt for the sentimentality of profoundness, so much so that it could almost be described as being ‘anti-profound’; such is its callous and (for the time) moderately macabre approach towards death and murder. This attitude is perfectly embodied in Martin Sheen’s Kit, who frequently evokes the careless, hedonistic typification of James Dean (Holly herself remarks that Kit looks ‘just like [him]’).
Despite the depravity of his actions, Kit’s nihilistic tendencies are undoubtedly extemporaneous, and this naturally raises questions about the motivations for, and willingness to wreak such destruction. While Malick offers us a tantalising glimpse into the life of the quintessential serial killer, we are left somewhat wanting by Holly’s banal and borderline autistic narration, not to mention Kit’s overly nonchalant demeanour (of course, Malick’s almost coquettish polarisation of an essentially duopolistic narrative pays testament to his genius and dynamism).
Even though we bear witness to Kit’s unspeakable crimes, we seldom gain an effective insight into his innermost thoughts and desires (even his record booth confession seems pretentious and shallow). Examining the cultural legacy of ‘Badlands’, some writers such as Irwin Streight have observed how Malick’s concept of (what he terms) ‘meanness’ has influenced other manifestations of the Starkweather case in other literary forms; specifically in the lyrics of folk music and its offshoot ‘murder ballad’ genre. Streight cites the title song of Bruce Springteen’s ‘Nebraska’ album as being representative of a more intimate meditation on the Starkweather/Carruthers archetype:I saw her standin’ on her front lawn, just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died. From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska with a sawed off .410 on my lap,
Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path. I can’t say that I’m sorry, for the things that we done.
At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun. The jury brought in a guilty verdict and the judge he sentenced me to death.
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest. Sheriff, when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor head back,
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin’ right there on my lap. They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled.
They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
Rather appropriately, Springsteen directly mimics Kit’s apathetic confession – ‘I can’t say that I’m sorry, for the things that we done. At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun’ / ‘I can’t deny we’ve had fun, though. I mean, uhm, that’s more than I can say for some’.
By echoing Kit’s remorseless lament in his own dream-like retrospective style, the sheer profoundness of Springsteen’s version of events is evocatively tragic (and not in the least bit psychotic) – not just in the lexical form of his lyrics, but also in their hauntingly visceral delivery (as evidenced in the video below).
Whilst Kit’s malignant intentions are rather effectively masked by Sheen’s delectably charming façade, this also detracts from the severity of his actions. Even when this aptly encapsulates the superficiality of Kit’s unstable personality, it never allows us to inflict upon him the scathing judgment he deserves (he really is just too casual to be a believable psychopath).
Yet, that Springsteen’s portrayal differs greatly from Malick’s more palatable characterisation of Kit need not detract from that which both writers seek to address. By concerning themselves with the root cause of such meanness – Springsteen is confessional and contemplative, whilst Kit is expressionless and emotionally passive – both ponder over the sociological implications of serial murder and question whether or not such behaviour is a cause or effect of bleak social circumstances and society at large.
It is also greatly ironic that Kit could just as much envisage his life as being indistinguishable from the romanticised narratives that Springsteen weaves in ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Thunder Road’. When he hears Nat King Cole’s ‘A Blossom Fell’ on the radio whilst driving through the night, he insists on pulling over and dancing with Holly and – in a rare moment of unguarded intimacy – he whispers into her ear: ‘Boy, if I could sing a song lie that… I mean, if I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it’d be a hit’.
And at that, the film’s tagline echoes wistfully across the night – as succinct and blunt as it ever could be.
Such is the perversity of love.