This week, I have been mostly…
Watching Terrence Malik films. Or more specifically, I watched Badlands and Days of Heaven, the first two Terrence Malik films. He didn’t make another until The Thin Red Line (which I intend to see soon), about 25 years later. Which, if you ask me, is a damn shame. Both are fantastic. I’ll write about Badlands here and save Days of Heaven for another time.
I watched Badlands off the back of a recommendation from a guy I interviewed for an article I wrote at work. He told me that it was beautiful, clever and used an unreliable narrator in an interesting way. He was right. But not necessarily in the way I’d anticipated.
My expectations of a Humbert Humbert-style manipulator spinning a narrative yarn were quashed by the drawled voiceover of Holly (‘drawled’ is a cliché, but I’m not aware of another word that better describes her slow Southern intonation).
Holly (Sissy Spacek) is about 15 in the events that we see, but she recounts them in retrospect – her intermittent voiceover acts as a kind of commentary on the visual narrative that shows the events themselves. There’s also a third ‘narrative’, if you like, which is the soundtrack. We don’t have many clues as to why she’s telling the story, under what circumstances, to whom (us? someone else?), and how long after these events have taken place – though we do find out that she later marries the lawyer who defends her in her trial, which happens some time after the narrative ends. She may have grown up by the time she tells the story, but she still sounds like a child.
Similarly, we don’t really know if the events we’re watching are ‘what really happened’ (as it were), or ‘what really happened’ as recalled from Holly’s perspective. The real backbone of the film is this subtle (and sometimes overt) dissonance between what we’re seeing and what she’s telling us – alongside the mystery surrounding what the ‘real’ relationship between these discourses is (is there a stable and established relationship between them, or do we just presume there will be because of the storytelling conventions that we’re used to?).
At face value, the plot is pretty straightforward. Kit (Martin Sheen) is a cocky kid from the wrong side of the tracks in a small dead-end town in South Dakota, some time in the late 1950s (the only thing that really dates it is his James Dean look, which is referred to a few times over the course of the film – we’re meant to pick up on this).
He’s good looking, charming and confident, but he seems introverted and a bit of a loner. Early on he tells Holly he’s ‘always got something to say’ which makes him lucky, because ‘most people don’t have much to say’. Similarly, Kit later tells Holly that he doesn’t mind the fact that she doesn’t talk very much, even if it makes others think she’s strange. This is ironic given that it’s Holly who gets to tell the story, whereas we never really hear what Kit thinks about anything.
At the start of the film Kit’s working as a bin man, but he soon gets bored, walks off during the middle of a shift and gets fired. On the way home he comes across Holly in her front garden, twirling a baton, wearing farcically short shorts, and generally looking young but uncomfortably nubile (horrible word, but it aptly describes her slightly alien attractiveness).
After her initial reservations (her daddy wouldn’t like her to be speaking to a bin man, she tells him), Holly falls for Kit and they begin a covert affair. He’s about ten years older than her. What’s more, you can’t get away from the fact that, as becomes increasingly clear as she tells the story in an escalating succession of romantic clichés, she isn’t quite playing with a full picnic.
Kit gets a job at a ranch, and a few months pass during which the affair continues. We’re shown various shots of Kit doing his job, which he obviously hates – herding cattle, trapping bulls in a sort of massive clamp and shoving a metal rod down their throats (I’m sure there’s a more technical term for that particular procedure in the cattle-herding profession), that sort of thing.
All the while Holly narrates Kit’s story to us in romantic clichés that clearly have nothing to do with the (probably quite unsavoury) things he’s thinking. At one point he seems to covertly kick a dead cow in the groin. Another time Holly elliptically refers to him waking up in the middle of the night hearing strange noises in his head. Her blithe tone, as well as the infantile things that she says, makes for a subtle but sinister clash with what we’re seeing – we can see that Kit is bad news and perhaps even mentally ill, but she apparently can’t, even though she already knows what happens in the story and we don’t. The music makes for a three-way narrative clash – a chirpy, major-key vibraphone melody that sounds like the theme to a children’s film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tEgzGnzojc.
This build-up of tension comes to a head peculiarly suddenly and unceremoniously, when Kit – having been rebuffed by Holly’s daddy when he tries to seek his approval – breaks into the house, tries to kidnap Holly and, when her daddy goes to call the police, shoots him in the back, killing him. We can see it as the culmination of the tension that has been building up, but – partly as a result of the subtly misleading voiceover, partly because we have no access to what Kit is thinking, and partly because of the disconcerting way in which Martin Sheen acts the scene – we, like Holly, still don’t quite see it coming.
From here on the film follows Kit and Holly as fugitives travelling from place to place. Kit burns down the house (with the body in it), and they go on the run, leaving a recording in which Kit says they have killed themselves in a suicide pact. They live for some time in a tree house in the woods, until three bounty hunters discover them and come to capture them, presumably in exchange for the large price that has been put on their heads by the police. Kit, who has constructed a military defence system to ward off intruders, ambushes them and shoots all three of them in the back.
More killings ensue, always apparently unplanned and on the spur of the moment. Holly is always passive and seems increasingly desensitised and apathetic. They attempt to stay with Kit’s friend (the bin man we see him working with in the opening sequence) at his ranch in the middle of nowhere. He tries to run off and call the police while they are distracted. Kit shoots him in the back. Following a series of increasingly close encounters with the police (Holly tells us of their increasing notoriety with a kind of vaguely bemused second-hand pride), they eventually head out into the desert in a stolen Cadillac, are surrounded by police cars and helicopters, and Holly finally makes her stand and refuses to run away with Kit any more.
He eventually turns himself in to the police – again, having no access to Kit’s thoughts, we don’t really know why he does this, and it comes as a surprise. Holly tells us that she ‘sometimes wonders what was going through his mind’ when he decides to do it. So do we.
And that’s it. Kit, we hear, is convicted of several counts of murder and executed. Holly is acquitted and marries her defence lawyer. The end.
So throughout the film there is an unresolved, three-way clash of dissonant narrative tones: between the visual narrative (increasingly violent and sinister), the voiceover (blithely innocent, clichéd, with the tone of a ‘they all lived happily ever after’ fairytale) and music (incongruously dreamy and carefree – though interspersed occasionally with music that seems more appropriate to the subject matter, such as the crescendo of sinister choral chanting that builds up to his murder of the bounty hunters).
But the clash is also one of narrative power dynamics. In the visual narrative we watch, Kit is the one who is in control of events, and Holly is a passenger – quite literally. When they go on the run, Kit drives her daddy’s car, the first of a series of cars he steals for them to ride in. In the story that we are told, however, he is voiceless and remains an enigma throughout. Holly is in control of the words that interpret and explain his actions to us – even though we know that that interpretation is naïve and incomplete. She gets her own back by reclaiming narrative control, even though she doesn’t seem to have any awareness about who she is telling the story to or why. So the two interlocking narratives are in a sense mirror images of the same story, each a kind of inversion of the other.
All of which brings us back to the central, unresolved mystery of the relationship between the voiceover and the plot. How do the sections that aren’t narrated by Holly relate to those that are? Is this taking place in her mind, transfigured in her memory? Is the voiceover in fact a transcription, or a kind of metaphorical stand-in, for her process of recollection? And why all of this thematic and symbolic convergence? Isn’t it all a bit too symmetrical? How much of this is present in the real ‘story’ that forms the basis for the story that Holly tells, and how much of it is of her invention? Is there even any such thing as a ‘real’ story? Isn’t every memory to some extent a fiction?
Because one thing about Badlands that is striking above all others is that it is pre-eminently a story. It’s full of the sort of artifice – convergences, repetitions, coincidences and narrative symmetry – that we associate with a story that somebody has made up. Not only is Badlands a film about mass murder narrated as if it was a fairytale – it is a film about mass murder that mimics the narrative shape of a fairytale. Just as Kit takes Holly for a ride in a stolen car, we are left wondering at the end of the film, is it not in fact we – and Kit – who have been taken for a ride by Holly’s narrative?