Badlands [1973]

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Terrence Malick is a director, who used to direct very rarely. The first film I saw by him was The Thin Red Line, which I liked immediately. I missed The New World and finally 13 years later, I saw The Tree of Life. That hooked me and it was a given that I’d go see To the Wonder, when it came out a year later. Even that one I liked, but I was starting to wonder, if Malick had lost his edge – The Tree of Life and To the Wonder seemed like they were directed by a man, who’d found formula and was furiously applying it left and right. A few years later Badlands was playing at the cinema of the local film archive and I went to see it – now I knew that his later films were but a pale shadow of  his first film. Now, a few years later, Riviera Kallio was screening Badlands again and I had time on my hands, so I went to see it again.

Badlands has strong vibes from Camus’ L’Étranger, but unlike that, there’s also a strong undercurrent of innocence. Finally, this has a weight of geography to it. The film is situated in South Dakota and the endless flat lands of the northern flyover states give the film a gravity it would not otherwise have.

Basically a boy meets a girl, girl’s father gets angry, because boy is of a bad sort, boy shoots father and runs away with girl to live under their own rules and conditions, until it all comes crashing down and they start running to get away and start again, but innocence is lost and reality must catch up.

The story is told in a toned down manner. There’s all kinds of explosive scenes, but they are depicted in a toned down manner. This plays nicely with the protagonists not quite registering reality to the extent they perhaps should. Their innocence is shielding them from the gravity of their actions. This could make the whole film seem like it is forgiving towards the protagonists, but it isn’t. Nobody in the film much judges anything that happens – sure, the cops apprehend them, but as mentioned, some hours later all of them are all smiles. The film could almost be seen as approving of the actions, but it isn’t.

One judgement is in the depiction of the killings. The first one seems almost like an accident. Band, and it’s done. The body is quickly hidden and the crime is wiped away by burning down the house. Little by little the killings are given more weigh though. The chip away at the shield of innocence and they are depicted in a more and more gruesome fashion. This is the girl seeing the killings – she doesn’t even realize what happened with the first one, but no armor is perfect and reality seeps in through the cracks little by little.

Another judgement is given by geography. While the protagonists are living in the forest away from everyone else in their innocent little bubble, the horizon is always close by. The forest envelops them in a protective shield like their innocence and nothing is far away. First shots with even a little room for anything to seep in already contain other people, who call in bounty hunters and the sanctuary is suddenly lost. It is replaced by the endless badlands of the mid-northern US, where there is no escape. The horizon is always impossibly far as is the salvation that waits behind it. There is no escape, only more badlands. The inevitability of the landscape reflects the inevitability of reality catching up, and finally also the police.

The weight of this film is enough to crush the world beneath it.

  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Watched on: 14th Jul 2017
  • Watched at: Riviera Kallio
  • 6/5
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