Eat Your Vegetables: “Badlands” (Malick, 1973)
Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Badlands (1973; Terrence Malick)
Nutritional Value: The danger of overrating introspection
Badlands (1973) begins by starkly contrasting Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen), whose love affair occupies the center of the film. When we first meet Holly, she’s petting a large dog on her bed. The first time we see Kit, he’s poking a dead dog, offering his fellow garbage-man a dollar if he’ll eat it. Kit’s callousness to animals gets replayed throughout the movie. When he quits working as a garbage-man, he goes to a feed lot where he experimentally prods a dead cow in the same way he examined the dog. He’s not sadistic. He’s just curiously aloof. His treatment of animals (e.g. offering the chicken to Cato as a gift for putting he and Holly up) echoes his treatment of people. They don’t seem entirely real to him.
Holly, on the other hand, confesses early in the film that the one thing she did wrong was “throw out [her] dead fish when it got sick.” Her father shoots Holly’s dog as a way of expressing his displeasure with Kit, her beau, and this moves her to tears. Though she responds positively to her and Kit’s momentarily idyllic life in the woods — with its cooing doves, humming dragonflies, and grazing deer — she eventually tells Kit that life on the run makes her “feel like an animal.” She intuitively feels the connection between animals and humans, how taking care of them signifies a person’s moral compass, while recognizing her difference from them.
The movie about a young spree-killer and his “along for the ride” girl gives us a way to think about how we relate to creatures who can’t overtly communicate. This in turn relates to the way we find animals fascinating despite that lack of communication. Because, despite Holly’s at times lush voice-over description, she doesn’t speak that much in the story. Kit is fascinated with her the way he is with a dead animal, and just because Holly can talk with him doesn’t mean she and Kit communicate.
Kit, we learn, always wants to talk. The first time he meets Holly, he comments, “Most people don’t have anything on their minds, do they?” The implication is that he not only has something on his mind, but that he wants to share it. Kit fascinates himself. He certainly fascinates the law enforcement officials and press members who crowd around him as the film ends. He records his voice on a record then sets it up to play for the authorities. The record player burns with the rest of the house, a self-consuming artifact.
This is why Kit’s utter banality is so comical. The one time we hear him dispense wisdom at length, we get bromides such as, “Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoint of others. Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted.” What do these clichés indict more heavily? Kit’s own sense of himself as fascinating, worthy of regard as an “individual”? Or the ethical stances of moderates who “listen to both sides”? The horror is not that Kit’s dictated advice clashes with his actions. After all, he’s merely testing murder out, seeing how its boundaries and limits work. He gives himself up. He accepts his fate, the “majority opinion” of what should happen to a murderer. The horror is that both Holly and the people around Kit find him unique. He isn’t. He holds widespread opinions. He is an ethical cliché taken to its logical conclusion.
And what of Holly, the verbose narrator who is by turns strangely prescient and systematically off-point? Her individuality remains lost to everyone but the viewer, the range of interpretations and recollections she conjures up all the more mysterious for having come from a girl who has barely started high school. Holly is the banal bystander who reveals hidden depths. Kit is the main attraction who becomes hackneyed on closer inspection. This doesn’t mean Holly should be lauded. What has her introspection bought her? It merely means that the really fascinating story lies incommunicable, just like the shots we get where the camera hangs suspended between the clouds and sun. Beautiful, but save for the movies, completely out of view.