Continuing the cinematic lineage of delightfully dastardly duos established by Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands remains a seminal depiction of disconnected and disenfranchised youth in late 50’s America. Like Bonnie and Clyde, Malick’s protagonists aggressively seek out new frontiers furnished with fields of opportunity and a means of escape from past social mores. The Edenic yearning of Badlands’ Kit and Holly to rejuvenate their future and aggravate traditional social systems appears as the choice by two radically free individuals to furnish their existence with a creative individuality akin to Kerouac and Salinger’s glamorous depictions of youth in revolt.
However, Malick’s subtle interrogation of traditional tropes within classic texts of youth rebellion unravels the implicit mythical assumptions with these modern fables. Resulting in a film that alienates the audience, the unfamiliarity of Badlands is to be found in Malick’s exploration of two individuals’ inability to truly acknowledge and accept the radical freedom within them. Rather than celebrate the potential for a subjective autonomy Kerouac’s characters passionately seized, Kit and Holly choose to engage in a picturesque yet pathological negation of life. Slavishly conforming to social codes, the conclusion of the film, with Kit awaiting his death and Holly concluding her narration of the film from the safety of her suburban life, depicts inauthentic individuals produced entirely through what Jean-Paul Sartre entitled ‘mauvaise foi’; individuals who have truly denied ‘the basic freedom that is integral to human reality: to self-create’.
Emphasising the existence of the radical freedom inherent within human subjectivity, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism offers autonomy free from inauthentic conformism to pre-existing moral codes. Sartre’s call to action to create one’s self in reaction to the life into which one is thrown is seemingly answered within Badlands by Kit and his murder of Holly’s father. An empty individual, Holly’s father depends entirely upon the wholly existentially meaningless institutions of class and marriage. A widower who has kept his wedding cake in the fridge for ten years, he tells Holly that she shouldn’t be seen with anyone who collects garbage and turns to extreme violence when his daughter undermines him by continuing her relationship with Kit. The murder of Holly’s dog [Malick’s own, it remained unharmed during filming] signifies the extent to which Holly’s father is committed to maintain the illusions his middle-class existence has attuned him to. After telling him that ‘I got it all planned, and I’m taking Holly off with me’, Kit shoots Holly’s father, and in reducing him to God’s garbage, appears to seize the chance to obtain individualistic freedom and establish a moral system based upon personal values openly endorsed by Sartre.
However, Kit’s graphic disposal of an individual who fails to embrace authenticity but instead wishes to deny his own inherent autonomy cannot be considered an agent’s ascension into authenticity. Rather, Kit’s commitment to himself, delivered through the bloody end of Holly’s father, is an exhibition of what Sartre describes as ‘pathological nihilism’. Through murder Kit negates life in general, including his own power of constructing new values; his meaningless actions serve only to give importance to his immoral twitching. Born out of self-interest and hatred, Kit’s actions cannot be legitimised by Sartrean existentialism; it was not a crime passionnel, motivated by the greater cause of political engagement, but instead a form of terrorism that is an attempt to seek security away from the responsibilities of his recently acknowledged freedom.
In choosing to lead a life chiefly conditioned by Kit, Holly’s constant passivity toward her own autonomy exemplifies the ongoing project within Badlands of a romantic self-distraction based on false belief. The constant denial of her reality, that she is in a relationship with a psychopathic murderer and entirely complicit in his killings, illustrates Holly’s existential deficiencies. Failing to establish a lucid awareness of the situation, Holly instead constructs a romantic relationship that necessitates her remaining with Kit throughout his killing-spree. Idealising their bond to a love that extends beyond the juvenile eroticism traditionally associated with young love, Holly states that Kit ‘wasn’t interested in me for sex’, and that, because of this bond, her ‘destiny now lay with Kit’. This instance of bad faith, where Holly represses her existential angst through convincing herself that she ‘is an object rather than a free individual’, is illuminated by Sartre in Being and Nothingness. Describing an individual who performed as a waiter, Sartre writes that ‘his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. His gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms. He is playing at being a waiter in a café’. Holly, like the waiter, has convinced herself that she is entirely the role she performs. Misapprehending that her role as Kit’s exasperated companion is fixed and unchanging, Holly, like the mechanistic waiter, self-consciously models her narration of events on child narrators in literary fictions, such as Huck Finn. Failing to provide a reliable report of her and Kit’s relationship, Holly’s voice-over is not a mode of ironic detachment exhibited by Holly to disengage with the travesty of Kit’s psychotic rampage, nor do they provide a deeper insight into the motivation and subjectivity of Holly, but instead a means by which Malick can reinforce Holly’s self-deception.
If Holly’s narration of Badlands deconstructs youth rebellion texts through parodies of language and love, Kit parodies their iconography. Throughout Badlands, Kit self-consciously assimilates into a multiplicity of cinematically distinct styles. On meeting Holly, Kit entirely performs the role of James Dean. Dressed in double-denim and deploying a fantastic pair of cowboy boots, Kit’s first conversation with Holly, in which he tells her that ‘I’ll try anything once’ and that ‘I’ve got a lot to say…most people don’t have anything on their minds, do they?’, is purely affectation, an attempt to appear to be in love with the idea of freedom without offering any evidence of this love. Later in the film, Kit continues to construct an identity through the appropriation of stock cultural renegades and transgressors; he becomes a Robin Hood in the forest, a Nat King Cole in the concluding part of the film. Attempting to each time behave in a way identical to his adopted social mask, Kit’s stereotyped externals are only dramatic externalizations of his stereotypical internals. His off-the-peg clothing only matters as evidence of his off-the-peg personality. These masks are to be seen as another example of bad faith, an ongoing project of self-distraction based on his false belief about the nature of conscious existence. Ironically, the only role Kit does adopt and explore to any depth is that of Holly’s father. Unlike James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause, there are no paternal figures to reintegrate the changed individual back into a social order. Kit adopts this position, his search with Holly being about becoming a father to Holly. Physically mimicking Holly’s father’s move from Texas to South Dakota because of the emotional pain elicited by his surroundings, Kit’s abandonment of society because of his desire to return to some ideal lost time sees him finding his genuine identity not within Dean or Cole, but within a patriarchal personification of an Eisenhower conservative and a very conventional American Dreamer.
Badlands is more than a film that aspires to the status of philosopher. Rather, Malick’s reduction of grand cultural myths of 20th century America reveal, under humour and classic cars, an existential tragedy of two so-called existential heroes who, in attempting to create meaning in a meaningless world, go nowhere and find nothing.