Posts Tagged ‘ film ’

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:

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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

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The Master, by P.T. Anderson

 

Billed as PT Anderson’s ‘scientology film’, The Master is really an enigmatic melodrama about everything and nothing. This is its strength, in a way, but also ultimately its weakness. Continuing in There Will Be Blood’s vein of hammed-up thespian intensity, like that film The Master focuses on two larger-than-life characters. Freddie Quell is an emotionally damaged WW2 veteran and wildly self-destructive drinker, whose benders involve alchemising lethal moonshine from ingredients like cough syrup and (literal) rocket fuel. However, most of the pre-launch hype has surrounded his counterpart, the bombastic, pseudo-messianic shyster Lancaster Dodd, inspired by South Park’s L. Ron Hubbard.

Quell falls under the influence of Dodd by chance, having wandered onto a cruise ship rented by Dodd’s cult, during the course of one of his binges. The two strike up a strange mutual dependency, with Quell falling under the spell of Dodd’s charismatic oratory and cod-spiritual guidance. Quell’s priest, psychoanalyst and surrogate patriarch in equal parts, Dodd is also in some ways a kindred spirit and mirror image. In a strangely triangulated pact, he feeds off Quell’s childlike reverence, growing ever more dependent on Quell’s dependency.

Dodd also, it is hinted, develops something approximating Quell’s physical dependency for the potent cocktails he concocts. Just as There Will Be Blood concerns the intoxicating effects of the will to power, religious fervor and primal animosity, The Master concerns the parallels between those of belief, personality, and alcohol. Both films make more sense if you bear in mind that, in one way or another, the characters spend most of their time completely wasted.

As is immediately discernible, then, this is not Anderson’s personal critique of the tenets of scientology, an exercise that would be unlikely to merit two and a half hours of any thinking person’s attention.  The cod-philosophy that Dodd spouts is clearly spurious, but its details are arbitrary and only briefly gestured at. Anderson is clearly interested in belief and where it comes from, but he is primarily concerned with the human compulsion, need, manipulation, desire and force of personality that creates it, not the details of that which is believed. Even when a rare, educated listener challenges Dodd as he spouts his ludicrous metaphysics, the focus is on the human content of his violent and paranoid reaction, rather than the truth-content of the objection.

If this is a character film rather than an issues film per se, that is not to say that Anderson does not attempt to locate his characters within the specifics of their time and place. Indeed, the film is full of gestures towards wider themes. Quell is a lost boy who has no idea how to take control over his life having been cast back into civilian society after the war (though the latter is never shown). His search for a surrogate family is underwritten by his own rootlessness, his father having drunk himself to death and his mother having died in an insane asylum. He makes a living for a time by taking family photographs in a shopping centre – the ultimate symbol of America’s mid-century crisis of spirituality – creating endless reconstructions of the idealized nuclear unit from whose authentic reality he is alienated.

Yet if Anderson intends Quell to embody some sort of wider truth about the postwar condition, this intention is at odds with Joachim Phoenix’s caricature posturing – which is not to say that it isn’t an extraordinary performance. In many ways it is a remarkable display of method-acting rigour. Indeed, Pheonix’s sneering, maniacal intensity recalls that of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck.

Yet the uses to which Herzog and Anderson put this sort of performance are very different. Herzog’s Kinski films are defined by Wagnerian excess – explicitly, in the case of Fitzcarraldo. The histrionics of Kinski’s performances are matched by Herzog’s overreaching metaphysical bombast. Their elemental intensity recalls classical tragedy, serving to dissolve the individuality of Kinski’s personas and elevate them to the realm of archetype. Herzog’s purpose is not to create a sense of empathy or three-dimensional believability in the case of Aguirre, any more than Homer’s is in the case of Achilles.

Anderson is interested in filming similarly spectacular and histrionic performances from both his leading men, but he also seems to want to domesticate them in a way in which Herzog has no interest. This creates a conflict. Anderson seeks to examine Quell and Dodd and tap into their interiority, understanding the human motivations that underpin their relationship. But their performances are so external and aestheticized in their studied thespianism that they remain remote. Quell and Dodd are neither believable enough to be fully human, nor representative enough to be compellingly symbolic. They neither fully achieve nor transcend the particular. The result is caricature.

There is much to admire in The Master, but it is not a film that ever achieves more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the main impression I left with is that Anderson is an interesting and talented director who has fallen into the trap of believing his own hype. Profundity, much like humour, is something that can’t really be forced. The earlier films that launched Anderson’s reputation, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are triumphs of style, offbeat humour and imagination, but they are not works of any particular artistic or philosophical depth. They are films that are not about anything per se; they merely are – in a way that is unforced, singular and vital. The Master, in contrast, is a work that in its desperate striving to say something meaningful about life ultimately fails to attain a life of its own.

Tabu, by Miguel Gomes

The latest offering from Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, Tabu revolves around a series of unresolved oppositions: realism and romance, fact and fiction, the metropolis and the colony, the internal and the external, the narrator and the narrated. Not only is the film structured around thematic contrasts, formally it is split into two bipolar halves: present and past or, in its own literary terminology, Paradise Lost and Paradise. The former is a prosaic study of urban alienation, while the latter is a self-consciously poetic melodrama set in colonial Africa.

The thread that links the two sections is Aurora, a senile old lady who gambles away vast chunks of her fortune and rambles semi-coherently about filial plots, the machinations of her taciturn maid Santa, and escaped crocodiles. We encounter her through the eyes of her neighbor Pilar, a lonely middle-aged spinster and Catholic do-gooder. Along with Santa, they form the central triangle in a low-key urban character study that resembles a less dramatic Haneke or a less wry Kaurismaki.

The themes are all there: the impossibility of communication, the atomization of modern life, the arbitrariness of a faithless world, the failure of multiculturalism. The characters are ideas with names. Santa (saint), an impoverished African immigrant, remains as utterly inscrutable as her postcolonial generic precedents would lead us to expect (she even secretly reads Robinson Crusoe). Pilar’s (pillar) Catholicism insulates her against the meaninglessness of her lonely existence. The surreal poetry of Aurora’s demented monologues provides a contrast to the unrelenting prose of daily life. All of which, while not without its merits, on first viewing errs on the side of obviousness and didacticism.

However, the film is flipped upside down by a second section that could scarcely be more stylistically incongruous. An elderly stranger, Gian Luca Ventura emerges like a ghost from Aurora’s past and recounts to Pilar the tale of their histrionic romance, set at the foot of the remote African Mount Tabu. Replete with elemental passion, shattered taboos, elopement, murder, betrayal and tragic separation, the tale breathes life back into the dead themes whose very absence haunts the opening section. The world is re-enchanted before our eyes in a manner whose potential spuriousness we are more than willing to temporarily forget.

The contrast is as much stylistic as thematic. The neo-Bressonian minimalism of the opening section gives way to an unashamedly lyrical homage to the silent era, all aestheticized black and white shots of verdant mountainsides in the setting sun and smoldering close-ups of the youthful star-crossed lovers. The section is soundless other than the atmospheric hum of crickets and the disconnected voiceover of the now-elderly protagonist telling the story at Aurora’s wake in Lisbon.

Reviewers have invoked Terrence Malick as a reference point, and the magic-hour lighting, leisurely panoramas and enigmatic voiceover would all seem to suggest his influence. The unconfirmed relationship between word and image serves as the formal crux in Malick films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven, and Tabu utilizes a similar structural instability. We do not know whether what we watch in the second half is a visualization of the events from an omniscient perspective, a projection of Gian Luca’s memories as he sees them in his mind’s eye, as they are transfigured in the romance-starved imagination of the listening Pilar, or even a commentary on the way we the audience might perceive his memories to look because of our own preconditioning by the very cinematic norms and clichés it employs. In a sense it doesn’t matter – the effect lies in the uncertainty.

If the section’s aesthetic were merely intended as homage to a bygone cinematic era we might dismiss it as mere trainspotting or self-indulgence. But the romanticizing cinematic language is problematic. On the one hand it serves to poetically exaggerate and universalize its themes in the manner of classic middlebrow melodrama. But on a more subtle level it emphasizes the potentially violent subjectivity of nostalgia. Stripped of their sentimental baggage, the events it depicts are largely destructive, culminating in the hastily covered-up murder of an entirely undeserving victim. Like the ironically fairytale aesthetic that disguises the violence of Badlands and Days of Heaven, this treatment conceals the nature of the events it describes.

The second section, then, provides a mythic counterweight to the drab social realism of the first, which purports to merely show things to us ‘as they are’. But this is rather more than dramatic relief or escapism. For one thing it calls into question the limits of cinematic realism, underscoring the gap between appearance and quiddity. Just as the characters in the first half are unable to really communicate or empathize with one another, our window into Aurora’s tumultuous past – outrageously distorted or downright untrue though it might be – serves to emphasize the inauthenticity of appearance. Though the realism of the first section pretends to document concrete reality, the second half shows that it has communicated nothing of its characters’ inner lives. The actual nature of the present is as fugitive and hypothetical as that of the past.

If the purpose of the second section were merely to correct our initial reading of the first with a revelation of the past, while juxtaposing the prose of the present with the poetry of nostalgia, it would have run the risk of triteness. Yet its complexity stems from its ambiguous relation to any notion of objective truth. By retaining an uncertain relationship between the words that form the historical data of the narrative (themselves potentially unreliable) and the aestheticized images that relay it to us visually, Tabu refuses to give us an authentic version of events to fall back on.

Indeed, the truth of the film lies somewhere within the very contradictions inherent in its opposing forces. The poetic truth of the second section is as selective, questionable and incomplete as the prosaic truth of the first. The whole remains inaccessible. Ultimately Tabu serves as a monument to the glorious futility of any attempt to impose a narrative upon the world.

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H83Z3UFcyo.

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7JB68sLGY8 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tree_of_Life_%28film%29) 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.

Badlands

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?