[This article has been edited on 11.3.2018]
Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first film is loosely based on real-life events following the murders a couple had commited in 1958, in the United States. In 1993 the United States National Film Registry elected Badlands for preservation since they considered the film to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. The film inspired a singer-songwriter Bruce Sprinsteen and his title song Nebraska; Springsteen saw it on television.
I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died
(Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, 1982)
Springsteen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find at that time; that very short story can be juxtaposed to Malick’s film; O’Connor and Malick share their religious beliefs. One can wonder if Malick agrees with the title of the story; his oeuvre seems to confirm this assumption.
Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and a 15 year old girl Holly who start a killing-spree across the country. The way in which they end up together is peculiar to say the least. He seduces her and she quickly falls in love with him. They are both interesting individuals; we don’t know Kit’s background yet we can reconstruct Holly’s. At the beginning she says: “My mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man.”
The act of keeping and burying certain important or symbolic items is present throughout the film; Kit does it often. Holly’s throwing out her fish after it got sick is of immense importance for understanding her character. She says that’s the only thing she did wrong. Since her father did not want her and Kit to be together, Kit shoots him. When her father died, his lips resembled those of fish; in Nick Cave’s words:
Well you know those fish with the swollen lips
That clean the ocean floor
When I looked at poor O’ Malley’s wife
That’s exactly what I saw
(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads, O’Malley’s Bar, 1996)
Since she threw out the fish and her father resembled one when he died, we can conclude that Holly felt guilty of her father’s murder. After his death, Kit burns Holly’s house while Carl Orff’s Passion plays.
The act of burning the house and Holly’s father killing the dog is, in part, what made Holly indifferent and empty. Everything she loved and cherished – was destroyed. Her indifference to the murders and the tone of her voice implies apathy; it can also be explained as a defense mechanism. When someone sees horrors and suffers greatly, one may become apathetic out of desire to prevent further suffering (he or she recedes as if into a shell).
Kit, on the other hand is psychotic; that very thing makes him an individual, different from the rest. At the beginning Holly says: “And as he lay in bed in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes he’d see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead.” Kit’s seeing her in “beautiful white robes” may imply that he longs for innocence and purity he cannot find in this world.
Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if they’d have the doctor pronounce him dead, or if he’d read what the papers would say from the other side.
Holly tells us this after a beautiful and simple shot in which Nat King Cole sings: “The dream has ended, for true love died.” She decides that she will never hang around with another “hell-bent” type, no matter how in love she was. There is no tone of regret or sadness in her voice when she tells this, only indifference, although secretly filled with a yearning for life. The darkness surrounding them as they dance symbolizes the vacuum created in their souls and the ending of a romantic relationship.
Kit contemplates his path into eternity, he wants to be in contact with this world even after death; more importantly, he wants to know what people say about him. Kit’s words open up a question regarding a relationship between a mass murderer and his presentation in the media. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers particularly deals with this issue in a tone of a powerful and psychotic satire. The media report the killings and people seem to be fascinated with them to a troubling degree.
Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence writes about a “great criminal” who inspires admiration in the masses due to his total disregard to the existing legal order. Kit as a mass murderer fascinates us when we see him on film, most likely due to Martin Sheen’s astonishing performance and his character’s ravaging individuality. This is particularly vivid at the end of the film when the policemen seem fascinated with Kit, ask him why he had done the killings and ask each other about their favourite musicians. Kit even gives them his personal belongings as mementos.
The question which should be posed is not only a relationship between mass murderers and media in real life, but also between presentation of mass murderers on film. There seems to be a triangular relationship regarding to mass murders involving the real-life events, the media and fiction. This is the essence of Kit’s words when he wonders what will the media say about him when he dies (since he is a fictious character, based on a real-life one, and contemplates the role of media when he is gone).
His narcissistic curiosity overshadowed with metaphysical questions explores another aspect of the relationship of a criminal and mass media, his fascination with his own projection which can be a motive for further acts of violence. During the film he records himself leaving fragments of his thoughts while having illusions of grandeur.
When the policemen finally catch Kit, he builds a grave for himself with the stones he found on the road. The longing to be remembered is equally strong in human beings as to be remembered for something “extraordinary” (with and without quotation marks) and becoming a mass murderer fits that description in a gruesome fashion (think of Charles Manson). The last shot in the film shows the airplane soaring in the sky and we see a beautiful shot of clouds and the Sun. The airplane symbolizes the soaring of the soul into afterlife.