Around halfway through Badlands, Terrence Malick’s beautifully filmed 1973 movie about two outlaws on the run across the plains of South Dakota and Montana, there’s a scene where the trigger-happy Kit (Martin Sheen) and his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) break into a large house and hold the wealthy owner and his maid hostage. The doorbell rings, Kit goes to answer it, his gun concealed behind his back, and at the door is an insurance agent (or someone of like vocation, someone who has an appointment with the house’s owner). Kit lies that the owner has the flu and can’t see anyone. The agent looks quizzically at this unfamiliar, denim-clad young man for a moment, seems about to say something but then thinks better of it; instead he asks Kit to give the man of the house a note from him and quickly scribbles one out. Kit takes it, they drawl g’day to each other in classic southerner style and the man leaves. End of scene.
I was blown away by the film when I watched it last week, but there was nothing about this scene that especially struck me. Then, a couple of days ago, I watched the 20-minute featurette that is one of the DVD add-ons, and learnt that the small role of the insurance agent was played by the film’s director, the reclusive Malick. Somehow, that changed things. Based on what little I know about Malick and my viewings of Badlands and his The Thin Red Line (1998), I suddenly saw his brief appearance in the movie as a microcosm of his approach to filmmaking: I think of him as a director who’s often bemused by what he sees and scribbles notes dedicatedly but remains on the whole content to observe rather than to judge or ask too many questions. Making strong, assertive statements isn’t what interests him.
Terrence Malick is regarded in some quarters as the J D Salinger of American film. What has prevented his being bracketed with the dynamic US directors who emerged in the early 1970s for an American New Wave – the "kids with beards", including Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma and Spielberg – is his reclusiveness and limited output: just three films in nearly 30 years (the third is 1978’s Days of Heaven). But then, in some cult/underground circles, his reputation is greater than any of those other, more prolific, more widely known directors. (Typically, Malick was unavailable for the DVD featurette, which includes interviews with the film’s stars, editor and art designer; they titled it "Absence of Malick"!)
His films are very difficult to categorise. (Many fans, I remember, were annoyed when The Thin Red Line was compared with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The two movies were released within a couple of months of each other and were both broadly war films -- but Thin Red Line was also concerned with conflicts at other levels: between individuals, families and other groups, and between man and his environment.) Malick is an auteur – monitoring and having the last say on every single aspect of the production process – and a genuine cinematic poet: to understand how, it’s best you watch one of his movies, experience firsthand what he does with editing rhythm, with the use of music and the interspersion of shots that don’t always seem to fit the context but which embellish his scenes, providing them with a beauty that’s all their own. Nature shots plays a big part in his movies.
Badlands art director Jack Fisk spoke in the featurette about a Malick trademark: cutting away at a key dramatic moment to a character who is part of the mise-en-scene but not directly concerned with the proceedings. "It’s his gentle way of saying that however important and engrossing this central story might seem, life goes on for other people," said Fisk. That detachment is in evidence in Badlands, which belongs to the genre of other landmark films from the late-1960s/early-1970s like Bonnie and Clyde and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us but differs markedly from them in treatment. The film doesn’t judge, defend or provide explanations for the behaviour of its youthful protagonists. It just watches them with quiet fascination; it chronicles the lives of two people who feel alienated from society and go off on a ride together, shooting a few people along the way. And it has a gentleness and grace about it that seems to be completely at odds with its subject matter. There are so many beautiful sequences it’s hard to keep track of them. My favourite: a 40-second montage of Holly’s house burning down as she and Kit run off together (after he’s killed her father), complete with a gentle, symphonic soundtrack. Fire has never looked so beautiful; the flames seem to be dancing to the music.
The closest thing there is to a moral commentary comes with the last two lines spoken in the film. Kit’s been arrested and sentenced to death. He’s being flown to the jailhouse and Holly (who’s been given six months) is with him in the plane. There’s some banter and the police officer sitting next to him says, "You’re quite an individual, Kit." Kit smirks and quips, "Think they’ll take that into consideration?" Cut to Holly, smiling slightly and looking out the plane windows; and we get a beautiful last shot of the clouds outside, as evocative and mysterious as the badlands Kit and Holly drove through during their escape.
Yup, that Terrence Malick is quite an individual himself.
(P.S. had written this and was about to post when I saw this piece on Malick in the Senses of Cinema Great Directors database. Well worth reading, but only if you’ve seen at least one of his films first.)