Archive for the ‘ Terrence Malick ’ Category

Days of Heaven, by Terrence Malick

My piece on Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven has been published over at Static Mass Emporium:


Terrence Malick holds a unique place in my personal canon of film directors, partly because I discovered his films at a watershed moment when a passing interest in cinema was turning into something more consuming. His films fuse a European formalism and philosophical seriousness with a classically American pastoral aesthetic and sense of nostalgia. They hover somewhere around the boundary between the popular and the recondite, giving them the character of a strange cultural hybrid.

Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, is superficially a classic American crime film concerning a young runaway couple, borrowing from Bonnie And Clyde and the long prehistory of road trip narratives that forms a central current in the American cultural imagination, from Twain to Kerouac, The Wizard Of Oz to Easy Rider. Yet this traditional material is refashioned by the modernist narrative device of the unreliable narrator. This casts an uncertain light on its nostalgic aesthetic and throws the focus narcissistically back onto the film’s form as the key to its meaning.

Though Malick has never completely shed his connections with classically American cinematic tropes, his films have become progressively more abstract and formally adventurous. His later films are ponderously paced and heavily aestheticized visual poems, seemingly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. Meditations on time, memory and spirituality, they are also investigations of the relationship between form and content.

Days Of Heaven sits at the intersection of early and late Malick, retaining some of the cohesion of Badlands while pointing the way to the more ruminative style ofThe Thin Red LineThe New World and The Tree of Life.

Read the full piece here


The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has been referred to as an American who makes films with a European sensibility. A former student of continental philosophy who dropped out of his PhD at Oxford over an argument about Wittgenstein, Malick has never had much to do with the Hollywood establishment, and his status as a mythic recluse is enhanced by a glacial production rate of just five films in nearly 40 years. Like just about everything Malick has directed, The Tree of Life is an enticing and unusual combination of the sort of highbrow narrative experimentalism one associates with European art-house cinema, infused with a lush, and occasionally heavy-handed romantic lyricism that connects it to a more classically American pastoral tradition. The result is something like a Calvin Klein advert scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and inter-spliced with outtakes from the Discovery Channel. Sound strange? It is, pretty. But it somehow works.

The film takes as its subject a 1950s suburban American family, a married couple and their three young sons. Malick has never been shy about employing rigid gender roles in his films, and the parental characters are classically Freudian. The opening voiceover from the mother of the family speaks of the eternal metaphysical (materialists: this isn’t for you) conflict between grace and nature. This sets up a framework through which to view the warring maternal and paternal principles, and their formative effect upon the three boys; however, though the mother’s monologue sets this conflict up as a clash between the ruthlessness of nature and the redeeming spirituality of religious grace, the forces at play could also be interpreted through a Nietzschean Apollonian/Dionysian paradigm, or indeed as some sort of negotiation between rationalism and empiricism. The uptight, disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt), is the realist, empiricist and pragmatist: a military engineer who is also a talented musician, he runs a borderline-abusively tight ship in order to toughen up his sons in preparation for the demands of the real world. The mother, meanwhile, is an impractical dreamer, both idealistic and idealised, who is inadequately equipped to deal with life’s more prosaic demands.

Telling the story of the family through a cryptic succession of fragmented flashbacks, The Tree of Life weaves together several key thematic threads: an investigation into the formation of personality, a study of bereavement, a recreation of the distortions to which memory subjects childhood, a rumination on, yes, the origins of the universe (Malick is nothing if not grandiose), along with a subtle interrogation of traditional film narrative methods and their shaping effect. In classic Malick style, the premises of the narrative remain shrouded in mystery, the audience left to do much of the interpretative legwork in piecing together a narrative that is primarily visual, a fragmented chain of heavily stylized images overlaid with various more or less cryptic voiceovers. What we can readily gleam is that an older version of one of the sons (we infer it to be Jack, the eldest), a disillusioned architect played by Sean presumably-not-paid-by-the-word Penn, lapses into an extended reverie concerning his childhood and his deceased brother when he sees a tree being planted outside his New York office.


Towards the beginning of the story we learn that one of the sons –strongly hinted to be the middle of the three – dies at the age of 19, a period not otherwise touched upon at any point in the film. This immediately reverses a cinematic norm; we are hit with the emotional crescendo at the very beginning of the film, before we have any real context for it, and we spend the rest of the film trying to work out what exactly has happened, when, how and to whom. Malick has a penchant for this kind of concealment and indirectness, like the sudden and psychologically unexplained murders that are central to both Badlands and Days of Heaven. If we are to come to somehow empathize with the characters, we must do so incrementally and indirectly; Malick refuses to give us the sort of easy, sham access to their thoughts and emotions implicit in traditional spoon-fed characterization, and instead imitates life by keeping us insurmountably on the outside. We are consequently denied the facile emotional release of a head-on confrontation with the circumstances of the parents’ grief, which to devotees of Hollywood convention may be interpreted as perverse. We instead experience their grief as a mere spectacle shorn of its context, a series of outward gestures without an established cause. By refusing us the summary objectivity of the classic realist narrative eye Malick draws us into the plot, activating us by making us piece together the causes and referents of the dissociated reactions we observe.

In fact, many of Malick’s effects are dependent upon his subtly eroding the contractual trust that we place in the nature of the sequence of images we are watching. In place of a more classic unreliable narrator figure such as those used in Badlands or Days of Heaven, a dialogue is taking place throughout between the very sequence of images Malick places before us, and the norms, conventions and assumptions that we use to interpret them as a recognizable narrative whole. There is a sense in which Malick’s approach amounts to a critique of realism, in a way that is far more closely engaged than in a surrealist such as David Lynch. Whereas late Lynch films such as Inland Empire or Mulholland Drive reject the conventions of realism wholesale and instead move in phantasmagoric, dreamlike chains of vaguely associative images, Malick mostly confines himself to more traditional and circumscribed scenarios. It is the manner in which he reveals a chain of events, rather than the chain of events themselves, that forms the basis of his engagement with cinematic convention.


On a formal level, The Tree of Life in many ways resembles a cinematic equivalent of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Simon. Indeed, central to the theory of the nouveau roman was Robbe-Grillet’s distinction between the classic realist novel (of which Balzac, as in the eyes of Barthes and Becket, is the prime exemplar) that places the reader in a passive position, and the ‘new novel’, which activates the reader by forcing him to take on an active role in piecing together the adumbrated form of a fragmented and incompletely revealed narrative.

The (novel) author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work – and the world – and thus learn to invent his own life. 

Countless works of modern narrative art – from Beckett’s Molloy to Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur and Le Clezio’s The Interrogation, to films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Michael Haneke’s Hidden and The White Ribbon – use the trope of the detective story as a way of activating the reader, and bringing to the surface the process by which we, as the consumers of a work of narrative art, are complicit in its effects in our role as the solvers of the mystery. Yet in The Tree of Life we are faced with something less playful and more mystical, cryptic and abstract. We may try and find an answer to the mystery but one senses that, as in a Thomas Bernhard novel, all we are ultimately likely to find there is a painstakingly achieved aesthetic effect that is held together by the very absence of any definite answer to the questions it raises. The film styles itself as a flashback, placing us in the mind of the central character as he remembers his childhood, but contains events he could not have witnessed. It gestures at a completeness that it never fulfills, refusing to differentiate between potential interpretative angles and provide the one thing we normally expect film to provide: an objective representation of events. As in life, that is something we must construct for ourselves.

All of this played out just fine at Cannes, where Malick won the Palm D’Or, but it will be interesting to see how it goes down with the cinema-going public. The relatively lavish budget and the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the bill is likely to draw plenty of punters who have little interest in the tricks and ambiguities so central to Malick’s engagement with his subject matter, his ongoing dialogue with narrative modes and conventions, and the overreaching bombast of his pseudo-metaphysical enquiry. The near-unanimous audience reaction at the screening I attended in New York (it doesn’t come out in the UK until next month) was one of bemusement, boredom and mistrust. There were most of a cinema’s worth of audible sighs of relief when the film came to its abrupt end, alongside a smattering of ironic applause.

The skeptics had a point in the sense that Malick lays it on pretty thick. This is a film that leaves itself open to accusations of pretentiousness at times, in which whole sequences seem to have been shoehorned in purely because they look good without serving any particular narrative function, and I’ll never know what was going through Malick’s mind when he decided to reel out the dinosaurs. But nonetheless it would be a shame if the reputation of the film suffers for the disparity between its high profile and its relatively obscurist pitch. The Tree of Life contains some of the most visually stunning sequences I have ever seen, and for these as much as its narrative cleverness one can imagine it being studied for years.  What’s more, whereas Malick’s stubborn refusal to grant us simplistic access to character and motives could have resulted in sterility, his fragmented and dissociated reconstruction of childhood contains enough vivid scenes and glimmers of personality that he ends up achieving a hard-won empathy that is somehow more valuable for the lack of shortcuts. It isn’t often you see a big-budget film replete with Hollywood stars that has genuine artistic ambition. And ambition is one thing that nobody is likely to accuse The Tree of Life of lacking.

Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick

So, to continue on a Terrence Malick theme, on to Days of Heaven – which, having been blown away by Badlands, I watched pretty much the next day. Days of Heaven was made three years after Badlands, and it’s tempting to take the two films as companion pieces. Days of Heaven takes many of the things that I found most interesting about Badlands and develops them to another level

Again, a child retrospectively narrates an adult-themed story that she only partially comprehends over a visual narrative (this time with remarkably little dialogue) purportedly showing us these events. And once again the split between visual narrative and voiceover seems to deliberately call into question the relationship between the two – as well as disrupting any attempts we might make to come to a stable conclusion about that relationship.

Having cursorily scanned the Wikipedia page – a level of scholarly rigour and diligence I would typically reserve only for writing articles at work – apparently the voiceover in Days of Heaven was added pretty late in the day, when Terrence Malick had been descending into Jack Nicholson-esque insanity on his own in an editing room for a couple of years. (Apparently this is pretty standard practice for Malick; hence he only actually finished four (soon to be five films in the last forty-odd years).

To be honest, having pretty limited knowledge of the actual process of making a film, I’ll not delve into this too much. Except to say that, whatever the original intention (which, let’s face it, becomes largely irrelevant once a film enters the public domain), Days of Heaven ends up being in many ways an amplified version of Badlands. It expands the narrative trickery, goes to town on the lavish visuals and cinematography (and also incorporates camera tricks more obviously as part of its unreliable narrative strategies), at the expense of some of Badlands’ formal symmetry and tightness. And accordingly it seems to have split critical opinion rather more.

The plot itself is pretty melodramatic (Days of Heaven is not a film, either thematically or visually, that goes in for understatement – if it’s gritty realism you came for, you’re in the wrong place). Bill – played with taciturn reserve by a young Richard Gere (a kind of exquisite corpse, if you will) – is romantic and rebellious but shackled to a dead-end job in a Chicago factory and bereft of money or prospects. Early in the film he gets into some sort of argument with a foreman in the factory (we can’t hear what it’s about), and in a moment of rage twats him round the head with a fairly hefty-looking spade, apparently killing him.

Cut to a romanticised shot of Bill, his girlfriend Abby and his little sister, Linda (also the narrator) on top of a freight train, chugging through the autumnal countryside. Malick loves these juxtapositions and playfully oblique presentations – fairytale sentimentality interspersed with violence and squalor, toil and mundanity presented with the stylised indulgence of a Gucci advert.

The three flee south to the Texas Panhandle, where the rest of the film is set. Pretending that Bill and Abby are brother and sister, they find work as (underpaid and exploited) migrant labourers harvesting corn. Malick certainly gets his money’s worth from the cornfields aesthetically, and the harvesting scenes come across as a slightly incongruous cross between John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – poor workers being exploited by ‘the man’ – and DH Lawrence’s hammy, over-pumped lyricism.

Apparently the film was shot almost entirely without artificial light, and mostly during the ‘magic hour’ before sunset, giving it an ethereal gloss that contrasts with the crushingly mundane, repetitive existence the characters are living out. While this can be taken as aesthetic indulgence for its own sake (it feels a bit sickly-sweet and heavy-handed at times, but some of the shots are astonishing), it becomes more intriguing when considered in combination with the other elements of the narrative. In this way, Days of Heaven feels very much like a continuation of Badlands. Style subtly jars with content in such a way as to bring the relationship between the two – their convenient grammatical separation, of which we conventionally have so few quibbles – into the spotlight.

Badlands contains lots of beautiful shots of badlands, and this presentation seems slightly dissonant in the context of a film about mass murder. Camera shots – so we generally hold to be the case – are chosen and styled in part to create a narrative atmosphere, and for a murder-themed film we might expect the director to go for something a little darker, more unsettling, more suggestive of a disturbed mental state. When taken in conjunction with Holly’s subtly misleading narrative, the incongruously stylised visual appearance of the film would appear to align itself with the fairytale music and the romanticised and clichéd voiceover. We appear to be watching Holly narratively refashioning the material that forms the historical basis of the story she is telling, subjugating and bending content (as it were) to fit a form lifted from elsewhere (the popular cadences and ‘sense of an ending’ that tend to feature in tales that we tell). All of these elements appear to cohere to fit in with some sort of narrative scenario – Holly is somehow responsible, we feel, for this presentation, and even though that doesn’t really stack up (she hasn’t actually edited the film and chosen the music), the obvious answer that what we are watching is a piece of fiction that doesn’t owe us overall tenability because it isn’t real, is rather mundane and spoils the effect.

In Days of Heaven this aspect is brought even more to the fore by both the more overtly aestheticised appearance of the film, and the way in which the story is visually ‘told’ to us. Malick apparently wanted to make a ‘visual poem’ in which images have greater narrative significance than dialogue, and part of the way he achieves this effect – undermining the primacy of the syntactically ordered and sequential narrative of the voiceover – is by editing the film in such a way that it doesn’t appear to be telling us the story in a coherent narrative order. Like a William Faulkner novel, it jumps about in fragments, usually declining to present us with an easy and established narrative or temporal link between one scene and the next. This means we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and also we are never sure that some significant event has not been concealed from us.

Whereas Holly’s voiceover is clichéd and seems to imitate storybook phrases and narrative patterns, Linda’s voiceover is semi-nonsensical (as well as being a lot younger than Holly – probably about nine or ten – she seems to have some sort of mental impairment). The fantastical aesthetic provided by the mood-lit cornfields seems to tie in with this narrative perspective – it gives the scenes a magical and incomprehensible quality that seems to be partially recreating the impression they would create from the perspective of a nine year old. The incongruously lavish visual style encourages us to detach the images we’re watching from their contextual significance – the misery of poverty, the backbreaking mundanity of the work, the wider social injustice and cruelty underpinning it all – and view it as a purely aesthetic spectacle.

This seems to align us with Linda’s perspective, who as a child with an incomplete understanding of the world around her and the forces that affect her, focuses on appearance more than meaning or explanation. Her narrative is full of observations about what things look, sound, or feel like, but she never really offers an opinion on how or why anything has happened. Likewise, the fragmented order of the narrative and primacy of images over words means that we have little explanation for much of what happens (it took me a while to work out that Bill and Abby aren’t actually brother and sister, for example). Thus we are placed in the wide-eyed and oblivious position of a child looking on, witnessing events without understanding their full significance and the adult motivations, causes and consequences that underpin them.

As the film goes on, then, this purely aesthetic focus seems to be in conflict with the fantastical, melodramatic and romantic arc the narrative increasingly takes on. It becomes clear that the rich farmer who owns the farm on which they work – shy, lonely, naïve and sheltered, and like Bill largely taciturn – is holding a torch for Abby. He is also immensely wealthy and, conveniently, dying of an unspecified terminal illness (again, due to the fragmented narrative style, we only really piece this all together in retrospect).

Bill (whom he thinks is her brother), realising the hopelessness of their life and the bleakness of their prospects for the future, concludes that a Faustian wager whereby they scam the farmer in the hope that he’ll soon die and leave them to inherit everything he owns, would be worth the pain of seeing Abby marry someone else. Eventually he persuades Abby to accept the farmer’s advances, they are married, and suddenly the three go from being farm labourers living in miserable poverty to living the life of lords of the manner.

As time goes on, the farmer’s suspicions are increasingly aroused about the relationship between Bill and Abby (when he confronts her about it she manages to persuade him, an only child, that an absurd level of heavy petting between siblings is in fact perfectly normal). Eventually he cottons on to the fact that he’s being scammed, goes appropriately ape-shit, and tries to shoot Bill. Problem is, he’s just a bit too nice to actually pull the trigger. Bill, who as we know is free of such prissy moral quibbles, manages to stab him through the heart while he procrastinates.

Now wanted for two murders, they move on sharp-ish and, like Kit and Holly in Badlands, hide out in the wilderness. After a pleasingly protracted chase scene, Bill is caught and gunned down by the police, directed by the hunched, ghoulish, paper bag-faced old foreman who was the farmer’s father figure, and who was on to them from day one.

And from there, we learn that Linda was sent to a boarding school (I’m guessing Abby still got the inheritance after all), where she makes a new friend, whom she runs away with. As the film ends, Linda seems to be setting off on a new adventure. Appropriately, they are walking off down a railway line. And, just as the end is a beginning, Linda’s voiceover narrative doesn’t end – she is still rambling on when the credits come in and cut her off.

This narrative u-turn undermines the plotted-ness of the film and the circularity of the story. But it also reinforces the purely aesthetic perspective that Linda provides – she doesn’t deal in interpretation, designation of narrative beginnings and ends, she just describes what she sees. So the ending detracts from any attempts we might make to read a ‘meaning’ into the story by preventing us from isolating it as a self-contained narrative whole.

It reminded me of the ending of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, when the two main characters, Frederic and Deslauriers, conclude that the most important and meaningful episode in their lives was in fact something that happened years before the narrative begins, and was in fact never in any way alluded to before. Just as Flaubert’s ending undercuts our attempts to read Frederic and Deslauriers as coherent and explicable characters, so the ending of Days of Heaven prevents us from deferring to the narrative boundaries, highly artificial structure and symmetry that it has established for us, by undermining it’s own finality.


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

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?