"You know, when we showed [Badlands] at the New York Film Festival—for the very first time—you could just hear a pin drop. No one laughed. Now when Badlands is screened, people laugh because . . . I guess our society has changed. But then, I expected people to laugh at Badlands, but when they didn’t it was very unnerving. Things were different then.”—Sissy Spacek in the featurette documentary Making Badlands
Often, Terrence Malick’s cinema is pigeonholed as one of artful, beguiling, and obtuse solemnity, and his most recent film To The Wonder will probably do little to change that. But Malick’s 1973 debut Badlands is, thus far, the only film in his oeuvre in which humor is a significant component. Strange, since it’s a lover-on-the-lam movie about a charming, sociopathic serial killer (Kit, as played by Martin Sheen) and an affectless, somewhat delusional teenage girl (Holly, as played by Sissy Spacek) that isn’t exactly an ultraviolent outré black comedy like Man Bites Dog (1992) or American Psycho (2000). But low-key, dry, and absurd humor is a noticeable and well-woven element of Badlands which helps it play well with contemporary audiences. If it isn’t a black comedy, then it is a singular and timeless art-house crime drama infused with greyish-brownish comedy.
Malick’s films usually have a contrapuntal nature, embodied by images, intrinsically serious, that enhances the films’ themes: the sheer wonder of the world contrasted with terror, fear and destruction, or a human drama dwarfed by the seeming indifference of nature. These characteristics are evident in Badlands, but with humor in the mix, much of which comes from Kit’s unusual behavior and Holly’s voiceover narration. To those familiar with Malick’s other films but not with Badlands, the idea of a Malick film being funny might seem odd. But considering that humor generally depends on contrast or contradiction, to me it’s surprising that Malick has yet to make another partly or completely comedic film. (Considering that Malick is reportedly a big fan of Zoolander, it seems that he still likes to laugh, even if the majority of his directorial work doesn’t indicate that.)
In Badlands, Kit says odd, tangential things like “I’ll give you a dollar if you eat this collie” to a coworker when he finds a dead dog. He also has a capricious collecting habit; for instance, after he deflowers Holly in the outdoors, he carries a souvenir rock to commemorate the event, but, after observing its heaviness, he throws it away and gets a smaller stone. And throughout the movie Kit alternates between James Dean coolness and erratic compulsion, making him charismatic and unnerving in equal amounts. “It takes all types,” Kit often says, and his type is the sometime-murderous, strangely comical Manic Pixie Dream Boy who does things like preening his hair in the car’s rearview mirror while being pursued by law enforcers. He’s a sociopath who can make you laugh.
In the film, Holly’s toneless, diary-esque voiceover narration augments the story and provides insight into the minds of Kit and Holly, but there are also a number of moments in the narration that are humorous. At one point, while Kit is trying to catch fish in a river as Holly looks on, she narrates the scene like so: “We had our bad moments, like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown so I could watch.” At another point, as Kit and Holly’s stolen getaway car drives across a barren landscape, Holly narrates, ““Kit told me to enjoy the scenery and I did.” There is a deft quality to these remarks, and they’re only made funnier by Spacek’s naïve and deadpan delivery. The comments also lend pathos and likeability to Holly, a character who could have easily become an irredeemable, underdeveloped cypher in the hands of a less imaginative writer and director.
Another comical aspect of Badlands is its ironic plot. For instance, after Kit murders Holly’s father (Warren Oates) and immolates his body along with Holly’s home, do Kit and Holly hideout in a cabin or hotel room, or a crony’s place, like wanted criminals have done in so many crime movies? No—they go off and live a “domesticated,” Swiss Family Robinson existence in the woods. And later, when Kit flees from the authorities alone in his car, does he run for long? Nope—he stops, builds a preemptive monument to his surrender by piling rocks on the side of the road and gives himself over to the cops, peacefully. Then Kit manages to charm his captors and holds court amongst law enforcers and armed soldiers in an airport hangar before being taken to jail. And if the story’s resolution isn’t quite a social commentary, it is an ironic acknowledgement of a truth: frequently, sociopathic individuals or characters become celebrated standouts in our culture. (Don Draper, anyone?)
Distinguishable filmmakers tend to have stylistic quirks earlier in their career that go missing from their later works. Along with Badlands, the screenplays that Malick wrote or co-wrote for Pocket Money (1972), Deadhead Miles (1973), and The Gravy Train (1974, aka The Dion Brothers) show that he was once a filmmaker who integrated a type of comedy into his work similar to the humor of writers Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy. Also, the early to mid 70s was a period in American cinema in which many up-and-coming filmmakers were making idiosyncratic, off-the-wall movies influenced by the European Art Cinema of the 60s as well as countercultural tastes and sensibilities. The artistic inclinations of Malick’s younger self seem to have been amenable to that trend. Consequently, Badlands is symptomatic of the New Hollywood zeitgeist.
Malick must follow his muse, which probably involves making more films that are grand, serious and abstract, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if he made something akin to Badlands that generated laughs from viewers while being enigmatic and impressionistic, and maybe with someone like Bill Murray. To echo Oscar Wilde, life is too important to be taken so seriously, and I hope that a talented filmmaker like Malick who is interested in the bigger questions will once again recognize that sentiment in one of his movies. Or, he could at least make a cameo in Zoolander 2 like he made a cameo in Badlands.
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at http://