Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands transforms the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate into a modernist film that questions the purpose and belonging of youth in the suburban Midwest. Badlands philosophizes on the defining power that law and societal expectation have on youth through the heavy use of modernist cinematic techniques, as defined by scholars Peter Wollen and David Bordwell. The use of direct address, an episodic structure, estranged characters, and a non-causal narrative all question what it means to live in an increasingly urban and lawful society – or society at all.
Film scholar, David Bordwell, provides a broad definition of modernism in cinema in his essay The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice. The modernist films that emerge in conjunction with art cinema show realistic places and realistic problems. It employs psychologically-complex characters whose actions are motivated by their psyche. Clear causation is absent which leaves the characters to drift through the narrative rather than to successively move through it. The hero has a “realization of the anguish of ordinary living, [a] discovery of unrelieved misery” (Bordwell 562). Spatial representation is justified through documentary realism and sometimes intertwined with fantasy straight from the character’s psyche (Bordwell 562). The straightforward narratives and emotionally-available characters of classical Hollywood cinema do not appear in modernist cinema.
Badlands (Malick) employs a loose and drifting causation to question the couple’s role in a society that does not meet their needs. The couple constantly switches between urban and rural space, never belonging in either or staying for a significant amount of time. This back-and-forth relay underscores their lack of belonging in society. Andrew Thacker, a writer on modernist theory, says “discussions of modernism must now consider also the very profound ways in which space, place, and geography occupied the modernist imagination” (3). In Badlands, the main characters drift back and forth between the residential landscapes of their neighborhood and the desolate plains of South Dakota and Montana. Their level of happiness in any one place is unclear as they continue to love each other and to kill others in every environment. They flee to natural spaces but are constantly pulled back into urban spaces. Their movement from one location to another is always signaled by outside forces pressuring them to relocate. They live happily in a treehouse fantasy until three armed men encroach on their hideaway. They are forced to flee the scene after Kit shoots them. This abrupt removal from nature occurs again and again as they flee the bodies that Kit leaves behind. Kit and Holly resist inhabiting the spaces society has molded for them, but they are never able to escape for good.
Theorist Peter Wollen builds upon Bordwell’s findings by defining modernism through seven explicit categories. He names it a counter-cinema that contrasts “orthodox cinema.” First – modernist films employ narrative intransivity, meaning that the link of causation in the story is broken and instead replaced with episodes, gaps, and digressions (Wollen 499). Second – these films are characterized by estranged characters who “are incoherent, fissured, interrupted, multiple and self-critical” (Wollen 501). Third – modernism foregrounds the mechanics of the film form rather than hiding behind the guise of realism (Wollen 501). Fourth – multiple diegeses are embraced through the use of different worlds, worlds-within-worlds, and changing linguistic codes (Wollen 502). Fifth – modernist films embrace ambiguity and provide the viewer with a “surplus of meaning” that Wollen calls aperture (503). Sixth – unpleasure is used to provoke the spectator, leave them dissatisfied, and force them into an active viewing of the work (Wollen 504). Seventh – and finally – modernist films call attention to the reality behind the film and work to break down the representation of truth to expose the actors, makeup, and special effects masking reality (Wollen 505). These stylistic and technical departures from orthodox cinema all characterize modernist cinema and are used to explore the psychology of character and space in a new way.
Badlands relies heavily on three of Wollen’s techniques: estrangement, multiple diegesis, and aperture. It has a highly-visible episodic structure that takes Kit and Holly from their suburban hometown in South Dakota all the way to the Badlands of Montana in eight distinct episodes. Each episode is littered with stylistic elements of modernism. In the first episode, they meet, spend time together, and fall in love in their suburban town in South Dakota. The viewer is immediately introduced to the estranged voiceover commentary provided by Holly. Her musings and observations provide an extremely brief insight into their relationship that is not revealed through their sparse and emotionless conversation. Holly narrates “our time with each other was limited and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from all the cares of the world” (Malick). This direct address to the viewer reveals the couple’s desire to escape from the pressures of work, family, and social conformity. Kit does not feel satisfied by his job, nor does Holly feel satisfied living under her father’s control. This desire – perhaps their only clear desire – reverberates throughout the film along with Holly’s narration.
The second, third, and fourth episodes take the couple from Holly’s charred home – and dead father – to a whimsical treehouse hide-out – where Kit kills three men – and then to a friend’s ranch – where there are three more casualties. There is no punishment for their killing spree within these first four episodes. There is no outside acknowledgment of their crimes. The causal link of crime to punishment is suspended as the two gallivant from location to location. It is in the fifth episode that multiple diegeses are revealed through a montage sequence in sepia tones. This sequence is the first to suggest that actions have consequences. The linguistic visual code shifts as images flash by: school kids being escorted home, armed men gathering bullets, the local militia hopping into cars. These vignette-like shots place people in the center of the frame while staring square into the camera; it is a stylistic divergence from the rest of the film. Holly narrates the sequence by saying that communities across the Midwest are preparing to confront the couple’s murderous spree. She even references her old schoolteacher and neighbor. While this montage does highlight the same physical world they inhabit, it is the first and only time that the couple acknowledges the other world that exists in their periphery. It is essentially a world other than their own, as it does not revolve around them or support their decisions to flee responsibility.
The couple goes into hiding at a luxurious, random home in the sixth episode. The seventh is full of iconic natural imagery as the couple joyrides through the badlands and dances under the moonlight. Finally, in the eighth episode, Kit’s murder-spree catches up to him as he is arrested and sent to his government-mandated death. Holly is acquited. While the fate of these characters is outlined in Holly’s commentary, their feelings toward one another and their feelings toward the crimes they’ve committed are left unaddressed. New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, describes the ambiguity ascribed to the characters “he presents us with the spectacle… of two desensitized people moving through a world that could be an extension of either a television series or one of the stories Holly reads in True Romances. It’s a place where there are no ultimate consequences, where even death may not be final” (1). Their emotions are vague due to their desensitized view of the world. By leaving their emotional vantage point ambiguous, the characters are once again lacking causal motivations and desires. Society might expect them to regret the blood on their hands, but instead Kit says “I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess, just not this big of one” (Malick). The last frame of the film shows Holly smile at Kit. They do not claim emotional responsibility for their crimes – such as guilt or regret – but just accept the physical and bureaucratic punishments. The law can capture them and sentence them, but it cannot influence their thoughts. Society and the law defeat Kit and Holly in physicality, but not in mentality.
Holly and Kit travel the American midwest with each other, ammunition, and a lack of desire or societal pressure to influence their behavior. Their existential questioning of the world around them is made evident through the use of modernist filmmaking techniques. Weak narrative causation allows the pair to drift from South Dakota to Montana and into the hands of the police, who they are unphased by and unafraid of. Voice over commentary estranges the characters desires from their bodies and the characters from the viewer, underscoring the insignificant relationship between thought and action. An abrupt change in the code of the film form emphasizes how isolated the couple is from the society they came from. An ambiguous ending reinforces the couple’s lack of responsibility for their actions. It is the modernist techniques employed in Badlands that gives the story a philosophical aspect about the interaction between people, their societies, and their environments.