Sunday, September 14, 2014

Badlands review

The idea of the American Dream seems to loom over Hollywood like a big, grey cumulonimbus cloud towering over a stretch of Midwestern highway. It's an ideal that seems so close and within reach, like a mountain in the distance. It seems so palpable and promising, yet it's still miles and miles away from you. This alluring idea seems as warm and intimate to you as a lover, or a good friend in a time of need. Yet, when you step away and look at it all you see you're just as cold and lonely as you've always been. A single man dwarfed by the intimidating landscapes of the American Southwest. The American Dream no longer seems as easily within reach as before, but further away than it's ever been. I've seen two Terrence Malick films so far: Days of Heaven and the one I'm currently writing about, Badlands. Both have been beautiful films packed tightly with flowering philosophical thoughts and vast beautiful, almost fantastical, images. Malick is a true artist. One who can make something as mundane as a cornfield seem like an endless and expansive entity that's equally mythical as it is visually beautiful. Both films I've seen by him seem, in some sense, to deal with the elusive and mystical idea of the American Dream. The idea is a constant in film. Dealt with in everything from The Godfather to that recent Michael Bay film. I do not think it is an unacheivable thing to "make it in America". But I do think that this "American Dream" has been blown out of proportion so it becomes an insurmountable hill to climb. A monster everyone can battle, but no one can defeat. The idea, not that one can become successful in this land of opportunity, but that one can become a rich and famous being of fantastical value. A veritable Hercules or Billy the Kid. Malick's 1973 film, Badlands, takes this idea and plays around with it beautifully. The movie follows Kit and Holly, two kids deeply in love. Holly's father does not approve of her dating Kit. Instead of talking this out and trying to convince him, Kit simply kills Holly's dad. It's dealt with like it's nothing. Her father is simply a roadblock, a detour if you will, in their quest for true love on the endless interstate highway that is America. The two are so in love, that they throw themselves fully onto this highway, murdering people along the way. Fueled by hormones, and that pesky little thing known as the American Dream. The whole lovers-in-crime plot has been told before, most notably in Bonnie & Clyde, but also in such films as Natural Born Killers and others. Even Thelma & Louise had a similar plot. What makes Badlands more than just a tired retread is Malick's breathtaking visual style and the wandering philosophical voice that seemingly pervades all of his films. In the beginning of the film, Sissy Spacek's character, Holly, says "Little did I realize, that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the badlands of Montana." But Holly is wrong. It didn't end in the badlands of Montana. It's still going on. Kit and Holly thought they were isolated cases having a little fun. But they represented something much bigger than puppy love. They are the embodiment of the bastardization of the American dream. A distorted idea that started out as a hopeful stretch of highway and ended in the blood soaked clothes of so many naive people. That is, in some way, what Badlands is about. In another sense, it's about not only the bastardization of the American Dream but of the utter futility of it all. That through all our ambitions and violent acts, we're still just specks on the grand prairie of the world. A mere beetle in the middle of a vast desert. Despite all that, Badlands isn't a depressing film. Even though at the end Kit gets sent to the electric chair, there's still  a sense of hopefulness that lingers over the movie like that smell the air gets before a rain. It's not overwhelmingly present, but it is there. Badlands is simultaneously a mediation on life and a cautionary tale for all of us. A wonderful and ethereal movie that has already canonized itself as a favorite of mine. I leave you now with the immortal words of one Bob Dylan. "No one is free, even birds are chained to the sky." Good night everyone. Long live the American Dream.