Director Terrence Malick made his outstanding debut with this poetic 1973 film based on the true story of an American teenager named Charles Starkweather who went on a killing spree in the late 1950s and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The story is both a teenage romance and a road movie rolled into one and is a variation on the legend of Bonnie and Clyde and films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and the 1950 noir Gun Crazy. The film introduced the talents of a then unknown actor Martin Sheen to the world. Sheen’s character is loosely based on Starkweather and Sissy Spacek’s on Fugate. But Malick did something completely unexpected here. Instead of going down the conventional route opted by most other directors, Malick elected to make Kit an almost likable figure instead of presenting us with a full-blown psychopath.
The time is somewhere around the late 50s and Kit is a 25-yr old garbage collector who resembles James Dean. After he loses his job, he comes across a 15-yr old girl called Holly who lives with her dad, who has a job painting billboards. Kit and Holly soon fall in love but their romance is met with her dad’s disapproval. He cautions Kit to stay away from his daughter but this leads to a violent encounter that ends with Kit shooting her dad dead. They both flee after the burning the house down in order to trick the police into believing that they both have committed suicide. It doesn’t take very long for the authorities to find out that they are alive and both find themselves running from not just the police but bounty hunters as well. And Kit continues his killing spree, with random individuals falling prey to his unpredictable and uncontrollable impulse.
It’s evident right from the opening scene that this is not a conventional lovers-on-the-run drama. The lovely theme composed by George Tipton appears sporadically through the film and it’s the kind of tune that normally doesn’t fit a story like this but here it does, and how. The film is narrated through the eyes of Holly, and present us with two characters who behave as if they are living inside a fantasy world. I was kind of baffled and pleased at the same time at the indifferent reaction of Holly to her father’s death. I was baffled because I couldn’t believe that a young girl was behaving like that and I was oddly pleased because she wasn’t wailing and creating a big scene like how characters usually do in such situations. And like I said before, I was also surprised at the way the character of Kit was treated. He behaves like a celebrity and doesn’t seem to regret his past actions. Even the cops who arrest him are friendly with him.
I was struck by how Malick’s handling of the characters is so reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s. It’s a little hard to figure out what kind of people they are and just like Bresson, Malick challenges us to come up with our own interpretations. Despite the fact that this is his debut film, Malick directs it with the deftness of a veteran filmmaker. Many of the present generation filmmakers have been influenced by the style of Badlands but only a few have come close to replicating it. The film has many characteristics that would show up in Malick’s subsequent films, especially the voice-over narration and lyrical imagery. I am one of those people who found the shift in his style after Days of Heaven a bit difficult to digest. However, I found The Tree of Life to be quite a transcendent experience. I know many friends that are hardcore fans of Malick but I think it will take me a while to fully comprehend and get used to his present style.