Typical of director Terrence Malick's work, "Badlands" revolves around a couple of loners who ostracise themselves from society and attempt to live in the wilderness. They eke out a natural existence, living a romantic life in the vein of Henry Thoreau, but gradually the outside world encroaches, leading to conflict and eventually death.
Our "heroes" are an odd bunch. She's (Holly) an ugly duckling and social outcast whose life was derailed by the death of her mother, and he's (Kit) a loser who collects garbage and preys on little girls too naive to recognise that he's a bum. Like most of Malick's "heroes", they're in search of some idyllic haven, a quest which takes them to the dust-bowls of South Dakota. Like Malick's "The New World", in which both England and America were "new worlds", this film's title thus has a double meaning. Our heroes not only retreat "into" the badlands, but "away" from what they perceive to be the badlands, in this case the covert hostility of small town America.
Though the film is structured as the hazy memories of a slightly older Holly, its visual "fabric" is almost completely at odds with Holly's recollections. Kit and Holly perceive themselves to be deep and brooding loners akin to James Dean, Bonnie and Clyde and medieval romantics, but the audience is always aware that they're just a couple of flat and vapid personalities. In other words, Holly wrongly annotates her own story, and it is only gradually, as the story unfolds, that she wakes up to this fact.
Kit is himself constantly proclaiming that he "has things on his mind", and yet everything he says and does proves otherwise. Kit's void is made most apparent by his obsession with James Dean. When others mention that he looks like Dean, Kit's eyes light up, his face brimming with a kind of narcissism. He's a nobody, and comparisons to Dean allow him to expropriate, if only for a little while, somebody else's fame.
Kit's "disenchantment with self" is emphasised during the film's final scene. "You're quite an individual," a police officer says as Kit boards a plane on route for the electric chair. "Think they'll take that into consideration?" Kit naively replies. Individuality, and the fact that society does not cater for it, is precisely why Kit and Holly find themselves marginalised.
The people whom Kit kills (co-workers, Holly's father etc) in his attempts to evade the law and maintain his freedom (and relationship with Holly) therefore demonstrate that Kit's rebellion is, quite unconsciously, a rebellion against a social order which wants him confined to the outskirts of society. The flights of the various "individuals" in Malick's "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" follow this same trend, Richard Gere killing his factory boss and going on the run in the former film, James Caviziel ditching the army and going on the run in the latter.
But rather than treat sex, love and freedom as a cynosure for unity and elation, Malick depicts romance as the locus of division and indifference. "Is that it?" Holly disappointedly says after the couple first have sex, a line which marks the point at which their romance begins to collapse.
The disintegration of Kit and Holly's "romance" (he begins to question whether she really was a virgin, she begins to view him as a bum) mirrors the couple's disenchantment with being "free" and "living in the new world". But Holly's journey from romantic naivety to disillusionment also mirrors the arc of the film's philosophical meta-story, which charters a war between the Romantic Ideal of man-in-harmony with nature, with the Post Enlightenment Ideal of man "lording over" nature.
Romanticism began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and as a revolt against the social and political norms of scientific rationalism and the Age of Enlightenment. It favoured ancient customs, folk art, "returning to nature", spontaneity, enchantment, freedom, and rejected rational and Classicist models in favour for a form of Medievalism which, in theory, helped one escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism. In short, the Romantic Ideal exalted a kind of gifted, enchanted, misunderstood loner whose creativity followed the dictates of his own wild inspirations rather than the mores of contemporary society. Such a "romantic outlaw" is found at the core of every Malick flick.
So Malick's films deal with what German sociologist Max Weber calls "Rationalization's disenchantment of the world", in which society cherishes "instrumental Rationality" over and above "value rationality" to such an extent that magic/spirituality/religion/ethereality is slowly eroded. This process of devaluation or disenchantment gives rise to a condition of cultural nihilism in which the intrinsic value or meaning of ideals and actions is increasingly subordinated to a "rational" quest for efficiency, control and the pursuit of "mundane materials", often by violence. Weber calls this the "iron cage of specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart" (Holly's father is an artist but uses his talents on advertisements).
In breaking free of their worlds and retreating to the Romantic Ideal, Malick's "heroes" are thus searching for some mythical wholeness, some non-existent Eden which is unattainable precisely because all pre-enlightenment myths of wholeness have been displaced by the modern discovery of a plurality of worlds. The tensions of Malick's films, however, arise from the fact that the modern world which allows for all, also allows for nothing. As plurality is threatening, the Social Order attempts to reduce this threatening plurality - and the sceptical undermining of knowledge and morality it entails - to one universal world again by means of conquest and domination. And that is the paradox Malick explores: the Post Enlightenment world which preaches multiplicity but seeks to impose its own unity, its own singular Law (imperialism/colonialism/the Big Other), and the Romantic Ideal which promises some spiritual wholeness, but delivers only the lawless, malevolence of Nature.
10/10 – Worth multiple viewings.