I’ve seen a multitude of films over the past fortnight (including Paris, Je t’aime, Shrek the Third, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Gloria, Of Human Bondage, Punch Drunk Love and welcome rewatchings of Adaptation, Moulin Rouge and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) and my typing fingers have been itching to review something but inspiration kept failing to strike. Finally, a suitable subject on which to expound hit me like a gunshot in the stomach - Terrence Malick’s Badlands which I watched late Friday night. Perhaps later than I should have, lying flat on my bed with the laptop on my stomach, sleepy head propped up by pillows so I could see the screen. But my lethargic state only endeared the film to me even more than it would have otherwise - I was so undistracted by anything other than what was directly in front of my nose that I was free to wallow in the expansive shimmering scenery that rolled across the screen. It’s a rich, ponderous film that overwhelmed me with it’s beauty before digging me sharply in the ribs; a heady cocktail of dangerous substance. I felt like Sissy Spacek’s Holly, a dreamy-eyed 15 year old, swept up in the glamour and freedom of murder.
In the film, Spacek is seduced by a local garbage man who keeps to himself, a whippet-thin local boy who struts around brooding like James Dean. I can’t even begin to describe what a thrill it was to witness Martin Sheen, decades before the White House came a-knocking, looking younger than he has the right to. He plays the homicidal lunatic with such cool detachment and reckless abandon but such sweet naivety it’s hard not to fall in love with him. Based loosely on the story of Charles Starkweather, a 1950s serial killer (in the film named Kit Charles) who fell in with a teenage girl, murdered her father and set off on a road trip through America. Terrence Malick changed the names (and probably a lot more besides), but factual verification means nothing in a case like this; this film is what cinema was made for. If I had seen it on a large screen, it probably would have knocked me out cold.
When something affects you, it’s hard to detach yourself so completely you can write about it in a rational manner. I’m trying to say intelligent things about the film, but all I can do is throw superlative adjectives at it and hope for the best. It’s rare that a film ever gets everything so right - be it the quiet grandeur of the cinematography showcasing the magnificence of the American scenery, the spot-on casting of Spacek and Sheen, the intentional misplaced jollity of the score, the otherworldly feel captured in Spacek’s innocent voice-over…sigh. The more I think about the film, the more I like it. Despite it’s obvious moral issues, Kit is actually a decent fellow with sound advice (if you ignore the fact he murders folks) to spare, he genuinely cares about Holly and illustrates the importance of staying true to one’s self.
When I was younger, all my favourite kid’s books were set in the USA. I was snobbish about most Irish children’s novels - I wanted to be friends with Ramona Quimby, not Rosie. Sesame Street was my ideal home (how dare they take it off air? who cared if not all the lessons applied to us across the ocean?) The allure and mystique of the U.S. never really left me, not even when two disastrous presidential terms sullied the nation’s reputation in the eyes of the world. It became ridiculously fashionable to denounce America and a lot of people got off on feeling superior to them. This anti-American intent grew and grew until some people were acting as petty and bigoted as the traits they claimed to despise. I don’t mean to overly praise the country, lord knows they’ve majorly fucked things up recently, but this is the land that gave me Arrested Development and The West Wing, Paul Auster and Douglas Coupland, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart, Nirvana and Tori Amos. It’s been a dream of mine for years to visit New York (although I fret that my experience could hardly live up to my expectations) and to go on a sprawling road trip; in short I am brimming over with good things to say about the country and somehow Badlands crystallised all this into one film. It’s the ultimate road trip, chewing up pop culture and spitting it out, reminiscent of both Bonnie & Clyde and Thoreau’s Walden, showcasing youth, death, murder and the importance of living life to the very full, toying with the audience’s expectations. It’s at once both relentlessly cinematic and somehow broader than a screen. It’s a living, breathing thing. When it came to it’s perfect close, I was left watching the credits pass by, as similarly dazed as I was by Jindabyne.
It’s rare that something can hit you as much as this did me, but when it does you’ve got to be grateful. Boy, am I ever grateful for Badlands.