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Badlands (1973)

by Steve Habrat

It is virtually impossible to shake Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film Badlands from your head once you have seen it. This arty crime thriller that is based off of the real-life 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate watches the horrific actions of these two young murderers with a frustrating and nonjudgmental gaze throughout the hour and a half this senseless rampage lasts. This is a gaze that turns your insides to stone and freezes you in place while you watch Malick soften the blows of the chilly violence with whimsical music and achingly beautiful images of nature being nature. To say that one becomes almost as detached as these two misfit killers continue their journey is an understatement. You will fail to be moved when Martin Sheen’s captivating Kit blasts one of his victims without a glimmer of remorse as the body falls to the ground. Welcome to Badlands, one of the most extraordinary debuts from a director you are ever likely to see and one you are surely never going to forget. Complimented by a marvelous voice over teen dream confession from Kit’s galpal and accomplice Holly, Badlands becomes the road trip from Hell as bodies senselessly pile up even though our two young lovers know that this wind-in-the-hair freedom cannot and will not last.

One day while walking home from work, young garbage collector Kit Carruthers (Played by Martin Sheen) notices dreamy redheaded teen Holly Sargis (Played by Sissy Spacek) twirling a baton in her front yard. The two really hit it off but Holly is reluctant to really get close to Kit because she fears that her father (Played by Warren Oats) will not allow her to go out with a garbage collector. Soon, things begin to go sour at work for the rebellious Kit and he decides that he is going to run off with Holly. After Holly’s father refuses to let Holly leave, Kit murders him and then burns the house down. The two disappear into the woods and they attempt to make a life for themselves but they are soon discovered and chased off by a trio of bounty hunters. As Kit and Holly begin making their way towards the Montana badlands, they leave a trail of random murders in their wake. As their journey continues, police and bounty hunters slowly close in on the duo but Kit has no intentions of going down without a fight.

Malick’s Badlands is relentlessly surreal and oftentimes strangely dethatched, seemingly off in its own little world, much like the two misfit fugitives at the heart of the film. As they flee from their dead-end small town and wander into the strange and unforgiving landscape, Malick’s camera comes to life and gazes longingly at this barren, almost alien land that is acting as the stage from Kit to lash out at anyone standing in his way. Malick never demands that we come to one definitive conclusion about these kids and he even makes Kit strangely charismatic despite his trigger-happy tendencies. He almost clings to some foreign string of innocence as southern drawl threats pour from his mouth almost like syrup. This is the most disturbing part of Badlands, the fact that we never truly loathe the monsters causing all this senseless chaos. They seem to enjoy the thrill of it all even though the fully understand that they are bound for chains and shackles at some point. At one point, Kit tells his buddy Cato (Played by Ramon Bieri) that they may make a try for Mexico but just by the tone in his voice, you get the impression that he doesn’t half believe that they will make it.

Then we have Spacek’s Holly, who speaks to us in a child-like confession, dejected but never truly alarmed by what she has seen and done. While Kit thinly conceals his doubt that they will stay out of the law’s clutches, Holly doesn’t hide it in her confessions. She is a typical teenager, one who lacks one specific direction and is still trying to get to know herself. She speaks of moving on after her run with Kit is over and finding another boy to settle down with, almost like this is just a backyard game of cat and mouse that will end when her father calls her in for dinner. At one point she hints that she knows she is Kit’s puppet, telling a young girl that “Kit says ‘frog’ and I say how high” just before Kit guns the girl down. The two watch these murders with a sense of awe, impressed that they are capable of taking lives without a nervous blink or a shoulder twitch. Holly almost seems fascinated by it, even when her own father meets one of Kit’s bullets and lies bleeding out on the floor. She is angry for only a moment, slapping Kit as tears well up in her eyes but this is only brief and it is all the creepier for it. Later on, Holly watches a man slowly die in front of her and she almost studies it, pouring over the fading light in the man’s eyes before his last breath exits his lungs.

As Badlands inches out of small town America and into the flat plains, the film takes on a western vibe with hints of a fairy tale whispered by a naive angel. These fairy tale hints also come from the chiming score from George Tipton, which enters the scenes low and adds an aura of whimsicality to the looming terror. While Badlands certainly frightens us with its insistent grit realism, it soothes us over with the beauty in between the fits of violence. The magnetic terror is abundant in the performances from Spacek and Sheen, two young talents who give the performance of their careers. Sheen is the one who earns the gold star for his chatty killer who sees himself as an adrift rebel with a soft spot for Nat ‘King’ Cole. Oats is also brilliant as Holly’s stern father who dares to stand up to Sheen’s rebellious greaser. The cinematography is to die for and the 50’s set design is fussy but never particularly overwhelming. Overall, Malick’s accessible but emotionally complicated vision of an America loosing its grip on innocence stands as an American classic. It is essential viewing for those who have a deep love of cinema and a film that elbows its way onto the list of most impactful films you are likely ever to see.

Grade: A+

Badlands is available on DVD.

The Tree of Life (2011)

by Steve Habrat

The Tree of Life is the first film from reclusive director Terrence Malick that I have had the pleasure of seeing. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that someone who has studied film has yet to see a film from the acclaimed and beloved director. It’s not that I have objected to seeing one of his films, I’ve just never been presented with the opportunity. I have finally had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life, the divisive and perplexing cosmic offering from Malick. I’m sure you heard about this how this film makes absolutely no sense and how it was met with mixed reviews at Cannes Film Festival despite the immense hype from the art house crowd. Most who see The Tree of Life walk away either loving the film, praising its visual artistry and contemplating the questions of life, nature, grace, and how we got here or hating the film, feeling cheated, confused, and rejecting its disjointed narrative. I fall on the side of loving the film, admiring its beauty still in the hours after I have seen it and my mind still trying to wrap itself around the point of the film.

The Tree of Life has three main plots. The first plot is the creation of the universe that is utterly breathtaking to watch. The second is set in the 1950s and follows the O’Brien family. We voyeuristically watch their upbringing of Jack (Played by Hunter McCracken) and his two younger brothers. Malick then focuses on the boy’s relations with their placid and naive mother Mrs. O’Brien (Played by Jessica Chastain) and their stern and forceful father Mr. O’Brien (Played by Brad Pitt). Early on in the film, we happen to learn that one of Jack’s younger brothers dies when he is when he is nineteen in the 1960s. The third plot is adult Jack (Played by Sean Penn) reminiscing about his days growing up and his deceased brother.

Boasting cinematography that practically knocks you out, The Tree of Life dazzles us, like many other films this year, with images and expressions over hollow CGI. Even if you find yourself loathing the film, there is still much to admire in the images. I marveled at the creation sequence and was chilled to my core by the glimpses of the afterlife. I was wrapped up in the time spent with the O’Brien’s, feeling like an invisible, otherworldly visitor floating around their home. But while the images scorch the viewer, there are also sequences that were immensely powerful in their subject matter. Jack and his friends go on a trek through nature, setting off firecrackers in a bird’s nest and tying a frog to a rocket. A scene when Mr. O’Brien lashes out at two of his sons, sending the third to his mother’s arms, sobbing and terrified is one you’ll never forget. Adult Jack reuniting with his father in the afterlife is warm and overwhelming despite their thorny relationship.

Malick’s pet project relies on its unforgettable imagery to carry it but if it weren’t for the flesh and blood performances, The Tree of Life would be nothing. This is Pitt’s film from the first frame to the last and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He puts the fear of God in the viewer in the way he lashes out at his children. His character has so many layers; multiple viewing will be needed to pull them all away. He is a cynical man who gave up on his dreams and doesn’t fully appreciate what surrounds him. He is intimidating and stern, putting you on the edge of your seat in the way he commands Jack to return to the screen door and shut it properly several times as punishment for slamming it. Then there is Jessica Chastian’s Mrs. O’Brien, a woman in awe of everything around her and bursting with affection for her children. She preaches a message of love to her children and whispers about the sky being where God lives. When she has to convey the devastation of losing a child, there are no words to describe what Chastain pulls off. She’s a delicate flower to Pitt’s whirlwind force of nature.

And what about Sean Penn and the cosmic opening sequence? Yes, they are all there too. Penn isn’t given much to do by Malick and that is one of the downsides to the film. He wanders around in a city staring up at the sky, skyscrapers, and then in visions, he wanders the desert in a suit. For the most part, he sits around and broods. Penn really gets to flex his acting muscles when he is reunited in the afterlife with his family. The opening cosmic sequence and the closing end-of-the-world montage are sublime and feel like something ripped from a planetarium. You have to see it in HD to really get the exhaustive effect. Malick even gives us a few dinosaurs! But what do these scenes of creation have to do with the story of the O’Briens? Malick mirrors the creation sequence with the progression of the O’Brien family. The family grows, matures, evolves, and experiences overwhelming devastation just like the universe itself.

The Tree of Life takes some contemplation and it is certainly not for casual moviegoers. The film is like a Rorschach test to the viewer with Malick being the one asking us what we see. I feel that anyone who sees The Tree of Life is going to emerge with a different viewpoint on the film, but I suppose I can offer up what I thought the film was trying to convey. The film pits evolution against creationism but it never seems to ask us which side we fall on. In fact, it seems like Malick points these two theories out to us and then asks: does it really matter how we got here? He instructs us to stop, take a breath, and just look around at, as Mr. O’Brien calls it, “the glory” around us. Things will happen that disrupt our existence (anger, heartbreak, pain, grief, loss), but those should not distract us from living and loving. There was a beginning and there will be an ending but with that ending comes a reuniting. Is that reuniting spiritual or natural? That is up for you to decide. Either way, I was immersed in the cosmic voyage that Malick took me on and I will never forget it the eye-opening splendor it presents.

Grade: A

The Tree of Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.