© 2012 by James Clark
Robert Bresson’s Mouchette is the kind of motion-deficient movie an attentive viewer could mull over for a long time. Coming on the heels of a production about a composed donkey at risk, its presentation of a girl at risk, and without components to make even a semblance of composure a possibility, allows of variants by means of which to further investigate waywardness foreclosing upon youthful powers. That those powers at issue do, as Bresson well discerns, not have to do with normal human attributes but instead with energies positioning one as being very unlike the conventional, venerable grasp of humankind, moots an effective correspondent having strayed far off the beaten path. One such contrarian not wasting much time about following up the (all-important) “hidden” thrust of Mouchette was Terrence Malick, who, six years after the astringent death spiral of that hapless figure, introduced in Holly, protagonist of his first feature film, Badlands (1973), a deadly package of immature indulgences braced, however, by the easy sensuality of a Texas drawl and the palpably radiant “vast sky ahead” of the Prairies of South Dakota and Montana (Big Sky Country), no longer merely an item of a cramped and bloodless classroom.
Badlands puts up front the whimsy of that situatedness and alludes, by and large, in the most oblique and unobtrusive of ways, to the suffocating forerunner. But the same gravitational weight bringing all of Bresson’s works into the region of covert horror sees to it that violence is done, violence much more bloody in fact, if not more startling, than that visiting Mouchette. Though a filmic experience of high-octane locale, music and dramatic motion, Badlands grabs you, first and last, with the voices of Holly and her dreamboat, Kit. (“He looked just like James Dean” [the time period being the 1950’s].) It is her story, and, as in so many cases here, her way of telling it couldn’t be farther from the terse, gloom-ridden presence of Bresson’s creation. Near the beginning, the day she meets Kit, we find her rhythmically pacing about the verdant, wide-open yards and deserted street of a small South Dakota town, keeping up her cheerleader’s skills in twirling a baton. That quiet zaniness forms a seamless continuum with her equally adept twirling of voice-over sentences disclosing the outset of her saga. Her life had begun in the edgy zone comprising Texas, not without love; but her mother had died suddenly. Her farther, so ardent and maintenance-obsessed a lover that he had kept some of their wedding cake in the freezer for ten years, was so shattered by the loss he retreated up North to presumably more temperate climes, specifically a francophone-seeming place called Fort Dupuis (at least linguistically closer to Mouchette’s scene). Giving us a sampling of her adeptness in dramatic understatement, Holly describes the surviving constellation of her family as consisting of a Dad and “the little stranger he found in his house.” Whereas Mouchette’s dad would press the validity of the adage, “The good die young,” Holly’s guardian is apprised of and anxious about her amounting at this stage—advanced prose notwithstanding—to not much more than a cheerleader. Her imminent fling with a poacher (Kit, a name redolent of gallant frontiersman and celebrated gunman, Kit Carson; and a presence, ten years her senior, recalling a cat-like Bête) and his deep calm drawl (a throatiness weirdly transecting that of Cocteau’s flawed but impressive convenor) involves coming up against someone as expressively energetic as herself. Moreover (keeping us mindful that the edginess of Bresson has claimed Malick), this scenario of the heat of Texas catching up with them rolls up into one figure the fit-prone woodsman and the handsome young man at the bumper-car concession (Kit’s vehicle being a bitchin’, volcanic-ash-grey, chopped down 1949 Monarch, with pillbox windows). This parental nightmare comes to us first as a minimally committed member of a garbage-truck crew—whose callousness toward animals includes (on finding a dead dog in the lane) popping up argumentatively with, to his back-of-the-truck partner, “I’ll give you a dollar if he’s a collie”—and then, being fired, having this conversation with an employment agency clerk—“What kind of work do you think you’d be qualified for?”/ “Can’t think of anything right now…”—only to give a whirl to action at a feedlot, where we see him casually stepping upon a dead steer. Holly and her baton number catching his eye, he asks, “You wanna take a walk with me?” And, then, so characteristic of this film in its pointed distancing from Mouchette and her tongue-tied circle, he declares, “I’ve got some stuff to say…”
In addition to his looking like James Dean, that line about sparkling conversation fascinates her and thereby ignites a fateful war of the poets—Kit (along with the silver-tongued cheerleader) and her Dad, a billboard artist and devoted restorer of old signs who, having made his way to being employable as well as poetic, would be left with an abiding suspicion of big-talking write-offs. But Kit, a true denizen of the frontier, does have a gun, with which he soon dispatches the stop-sign (while Holly, a more single-minded devotee of music than Mouchette, practices her clarinet in the yard). After that, he burns down the house with the corpse on the basement floor and gives Holly the long and memorable ride she’s underway with telling us about. During this abrupt change of address, her gossamer comportment (accessorized by a mane of red hair and an ethereal face, even moreso on account of being richly sprinkled with freckles) goes transparently awry. Her father supine on the floor with a hole in his chest and nary a tick, she addresses him as though she were 5, not 15. “Are you gonna be OK?” Before the auto-da-fe, they carry the body downstairs, and she goes on to ramble through the house, pensively smoking a cigarette, as if stymied by what to pack for a vacation. Kit tells her, “Don’t worry, Honey,” and she slaps his face as if he’d offended her dad at the dinner table. She’s wearing a flouncy, lime-green dress and little white socks that make her look to be 9 at the most, and as if getting ready for a Sunday morning at church. From a second-floor window she notices two little boys (about nine years old) hanging out on a street corner, and it’s clear she’s saying good-bye to something she might have wanted to keep. Kit coincides with this trace of tranquillizing anaesthetic, in drifting into her self-construct of pellucid wit. “He was provokin’ me when I popped him.” (This, on a disc he’d cut at the bus station, to be left playing in the ensuant blaze as a discovery for the DA, on behalf of leading off his defence. During their spate of clandestine dating, about which far from fully cool Dad expresses his dissent by shooting her beloved dog, wrapping it in tarp and dumping it into a river, she remarks, “I dreamed of being lost,” and then [adding to the noteworthy strain of sharply dispensable animals] she throws out into the yard her ailing and hence bothersome pet catfish, which we see gasping for air. Also during this too-young-to-go-steady dream world, Kit demonstrates that, though considerably older than she, he has as much growing up to do. By a river and its steady clip [one of many by which we are pointedly directed toward Mouchette’s demise], he writes out a “solemn vow” of his caring and places the sacred text in a little red balloon heading into the country/western sky. She limns, like a precocious valedictorian, “His heart was filled with longing as he watched it drift off.”)
Punctuated with clips of burning Dad, they hit the road in that killer car, and he turns to her and asks, “How you doin’?” “I’m fine,” she assures him, with quiet affection. “Kinda tired…” “Yeah,” he whispers, “I can see that…” (floating a register that would be perfect with reference to going to excess about Karaoke nights). The pulsing motor and the forever-young countryside do not drive her to rhapsody, but they are still approached as a welcome change. As they wend their way, music washes over them, curiously formal; but it is on the bouncy percussive order of Carl Orff, as against Bresson’s more frosty indicators of ultimate struggle, namely, Bach and Monteverdi. The go-for-broke sunniness of Orff’s Gassenhauer [hit song], composed to be performed by children, cues Holly’s articulation-ahead of mastery declaration, “I sensed that my destiny lay with Kit.” Hiding out with him in riverbank scrub forest (where he was wont to blast fish for dinner with his handgun), she indicates a far more ruminative sense of finitude than Mouchette could muster. “I grew to love the house made of sticks, where it was easy to imagine that everyone was dead.” She adds to this panorama the personal twist, “I had just so many years to live… and that sent a chill down my spine.”
Kit’s energies run to questions of territorial advantage, a factor richly broached by the booby-trapped fortification he constructs to squelch the law of a land that he and his Monarch and his destiny-insistent spouse have gone about partitioning. On attracting attention by popping fish, he finds his kingdom under siege by three locals in hot pursuit of reward money, and his agility, accuracy and ruthlessness in popping them in no time flat give us a sharp taste of the rabid dimension of his combativeness. Holly’s maintaining an apologia for that derangement nudges her precocious tongue into the sphere of budding rustic lawyer, an alert that her callowness will not age well. “Kit felt bad about shooting those men in the back. But since they were not real lawmen but only bounty hunters, he didn’t feel the obligation to give them a fair chance.” Along with such a gratifying chronicler, he moves on to the home of a former colleague on the garbage run, Cato, by name, in order to take advantage of the latter’s even and generous temper. Cato’s is a precinct at the flattest point of the Prairies, where the land and its populace seem but an afterthought (however indispensable) in a powerful strike devoted to outer space and its play of light and cloud (vast sky ahead). Far from our probable first assumption that he is retarded, then, is Cato’s dignified disinterestedness in his own plight of being gunned down by his chum, in breaking away from the fugitive guests to call the cops (the classical figure, bearing that name, having been an opponent of Cesar) as they meander aimlessly around his property. Holly had set the stage by describing (in a breezy tone) their incursion as if going to a friend’s cottage for the weekend. “We went to hide out with a friend of Kit from the days of the garbage route” [trash ever so gently wafting to the surface now]. She smoothly occupies the role of new spouse, breaking the ice with a well-rehearsed joke about an inmate of an asylum—Cato politely laughing out loud, and Kit proudly elaborating, “She plays clarinet, too!” Cato being very fond of scavenging (his raw shack being remarkably decorated with modest and quirky objects from out of the job, recalling her father’s more erudite restoration of old signs with their grand shapes, textures and colors), he tells them, perhaps misleadingly, of one of the special features of the estate, old Spanish coins (improbably far North) having been found—like fossils—at one swatch of the grounds. From there the host slips up, there is horror, and then a peculiar and revealing (of each of them, separately) moment of their default positions (the guests flashing mainstream sedateness [or sedativeness], Cato flashing self-sufficient love of the small gifts of nature, by which to withstand invasive blightedness). The bullet has gone right through the burly friend, and as he staggers toward his castle, Kit opens the door for him (as if it were a matter of a sprained ankle casting a little bit of cloud upon a warm get-together). Holly asks, the picture of calm concern, “Is he upset?” And Kit, maintaining the register pertaining to an unfortunate glitch, sticks to promising facts. “He didn’t say anything to me about it.” Then he goes on to find license for a bit of real estate envy and spotting in his friend some self-destructive character flaws. “He stole that [vintage bird] cage. I saw him do it.” Cato has dragged himself to his cot while the guests from hell work on their self-esteem. Holly comes over and strikes up pleasantries about Cato’s typically unlovely but, for all that, depth-revealing pet. “That yore spidah thea? [gesturing to a little jar]…What do you faed him?”/ “Flies.”/ “Does he bahte?”/ “He ain’t never bit me.” Gradually the composed donkey at risk, namely, Balthazar, materializes as a factor making a difference from out of the foreground; and, accordingly, Holly and Kit begin to strut their stuff as renditions of Au Hasard Balthazar’s Marie and Gerard, renditions having derived more polish due to, in one case, warmer and wittier parenting and, in the other case, glossy magazine templates of wholesome cool. (During a later stage of their contending with the regulations they consider to be contestable, she reads out loud to him, as he drives, from a Hollywood publication which pays homage to the likes of clean-cut nice guy, Pat Boone, who fetchingly may be found to stray from pat “answers” to more controversial “facts.”) Having murdered their designated host, and finding themselves restricted to an immodest vehicle that had become a shooting-gallery target (shadowing Mouchette’s stations at the village midway), they would see an opportunity presenting itself in the form of a wholesome young couple driving up in their Studebaker to visit their unbeknown recently departed sweetheart of a friend. Kit soon urges them at gunpoint to proceed into the grave-like tornado shelter and then drills them through a gap in the door. As they are being marched to the sidelines, the girl, chubby, gentle and prepared to be a pillar of society, asks Holly, with whom she is walking, “Is he going to hurt us?” Holly, who, at the beginning of the encounter, had flashed a pleasant but increasingly transparent Hollywood smile for the new girl, shifts rapidly into detachment from and oblique criticism of all semblance of evil—“You’ll have to ask Kit.” The latter, after firing at such unglamorous figures, shouts out to his Good Fairy, “Think I got ‘em?” and they lickety split it toward that not so bad bullet-nosed “Coming or Going.” Racing along the highway, she makes a case to herself that this messy ensemble has nothing to do with her. “He never seemed like a violent person [apparently she’s forgotten about her father]… We’re in for it now if they catch us [apparently the murder of three bounty hunters could have been treated as a misdemeanor].”
On pounding along the open road in the automotive bullet, Holly takes a stab at finding some wiggle room for maintaining that sprightliness she knows to be right but now compellingly diseased by a killer of a tuning situation. Coming from a source of such hitherto easy, comedic relish for the incongruous, deftness fails her. “At this moment, I didn’ fael shayme or feahr, but just kina’ blah… lahk when yore sittin’ theahr an all the wattus run out of the baethtub.” One thing, though, she does touch upon there a physiological gravity embarrassing her excursion toward being up to speed. There is some footage of a region reeling in terror from that pair, and then a dash of lemon, courtesy of her less than impressed music teacher. “My clarinet teacher said I probably wasn’t responsible” (this including Holly’s somehow ominous and unlikeable generator of legalese shielding her from facing deficiencies). They drop by “an old mansion” for “supplies,” and in the course of their impingement upon the ancient efficacies which it exudes—including an overtly humane master and his deaf mute maid—they (however unsteadily) reposition themselves as traditionalists, pulling away (now in vain) from the abrasiveness their peppy aspirations delivered them to. Holly uses some pricey stemware to revisit her musician’s delight in evoking timbres from the vibrating thin glass. Her voiceover account of this hiatus is informed by self-pity, self-aggrandizement and a heavily filtered sense of the alienating realities of social experience. “I was deep in thought. The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return.” Whereas she becomes well on her way to occupancy of just such a bastion of blue-chip taste (during the genteel siege at the mansion, Malick himself knocks at the door claiming to have an appointment to go over some business matters with the classy investor [production funds, perhaps], a nice establishment that playing ball with the establishment makes innovative sense), Kit delivers on a Dictaphone some bids on behalf of image-renovation, so ripe with loony malarkey as to impress us that—notwithstanding its being pronouncedly savage—his is a rebellion containing shards of truly fertile wit. “Listen to your parents and teachers. There’s an outside chance you can learn something from them. Try to keep an open mind. Consider the minority opinion. But try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted.”
A final touch, before they take the nice man’s Cadillac cross-country (the power-drive treating open fields as if they were highways), is Holly’s finding some deluxe fabric and using it as a shawl that, on covering her head, reminds us of Mouchette’s shroud. Such a moment primes reflection upon Holly’s bringing off a life of clear (if essentially oblivious) sailing. During the rooster-tail (less than) joyride, Kit expresses his detestation for South Dakota (as they leave it), especially Rapid City, which he hopes the Communists will see fit to make even more low-rise. Shrouds and rapids up for grabs, the pair veers away from the real deal landing Bresson’s girl in hot water. Holly chimes in by noting that the State Bird of Montana, which they’ve begun to explore, is the meadowlark, a spunky musician with much more access to joyous melody than they. She admits, “I feel kinda like an animal out here.” That cue to rejoin the human race—tracing into her expressing the distant lights of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to be an inspiration—presses the question of what point there is in cultural advantage in face of fulsome personal cowardice.
Their taking advantage of the range of the Cadillac has to be measured against fear-driven disorientation. While Texas is floated as a congenial milieu for gunslingers, there is also Mexico, a promontory in Montana which they periodically glimpse far in the distance (its glorious visual pop and serene sky cover now clearly not registering with them), and “the mountains of Saskatchewan”—a place probably flatter than Holland (promoted in fact as “hard to spell, easy to draw”). (These media mavens might have come upon the 1950’s Alan Ladd vehicle of the same name, where pokey farmland is cosmetically transformed to alpine glamor.) Holly is typically quick to note that that oddly named jurisdiction is “a magical land beyond the reach of the law.” She’s now musing that she’ll make a point of “never again hanging around with the hell-bent type.” And, to round off things of the road with cinematic sizzle contributing to the relentless probe into what is at the heart of their misadventure, we see them, looking into the high beams of their king-of-the-road vehicle, chewing up those mysterious miles and—what do you know?!—it’s Nat King Cole on the radio, singing, not “Rather Have the Blues,” as he did for Mike and Christina in Kiss Me Deadly (their rigors ironically tripped over by Kit, in his missive to the DA—“Nobody’s coming out of this happy…”), but “A Blossom Fell”—“The dance has ended/ And true love died/ The night a blossom fell and touched two lips that lied.” Next day a police chopper appears while he is in the course of stealing a new vehicle (a crummy truck), she refuses to make a run for it (Kit exclaiming, and we sort of know what he means, “I don’t know what to make of people like you!”), a skirmish ensues, Kit killing one of the cops, he takes off, sticking, after all, with his high-quality product, and Holly takes off into the skies, as a prisoner of the surviving cop.
He’s soon a prisoner, too, bored by a predictable chase and chaffing at having become a hunted animal along tedious rural routes. But he’s soon gone far toward winning over his captors, even finding that one of them has in common with him a favorite singer in Eddie Fisher. That quickness for homing in on a lowest common denominator takes MRI-level investigation in the passage setting forth with him on the tarmac of a backwater airstrip being bound and on a chain leash, and encountering Holly, likewise constrained, but clearly not, like him, headed for Death Row. He chooses to leave with her the notion that, “That guy with the deaf maid, he’s just lucky he’s not dead too.” Though a good old boy with the best of them, he’s also about “treating them [and the mainstream giant] like enemies.” He prefaces his little jet of venom (directed as much toward her as toward the other “enemy”) by smiling and cracking, “Boy, we rang the bell, didn’t we?” A bit before this, one of his captors asks, “You like people?” And this gambit helps us see the balancing act he’s up against and bringing him down. “They’re OK,” Kit replies, with little conviction. “Then why’d you do it?”/ “I always wanted to be a criminal. But not so big a one…” The questioner turns to his sidekick, flashes a big smile and exclaims, “Shit! But ain’t he just like James Dean?” Kit of course laps that up, smiling broadly. But we know he ain’t exactly a Rebel without a Cause. Right from the top, on introducing himself as having something to say, he adds and only now do we see what he meant, “Most people don’t have anything on their minds, do they?” Holly’s report that he fell asleep during sentencing is all of a piece.
Her voiceover goes on to inform us, “I got off with probation and a lot of nasty looks.” That she’s also about to marry the son of her lawyer suggests she hasn’t taken to heart the kind of probation she’s left with, a struggle the weight of which pulverizes Mouchette. As noted, during their first days, we see and hear about her tossing out, into the back yard, a big old pet catfish that was sick, and claiming this short shrift “Kept botherin’ me.” At the same period she dismisses having an episode of sex with him with, “Gosh, what was everybody talking about? I’m glad it’s over.” She wonders, “Did I do it right?” And though he assures her that she’s fine, her performance going forward from there reveals emotive, carnal impoverishment, or childishness. (During their days at the hideout, they devise false names; hers is “Priscilla,” apt for one so essentially prissy.) On the other hand, the last we hear from Kit, he’s still able to ring the bell. His low-volume bass-note buzz of a voice comes to imply he’s always addressing himself as much as the one in his face. At the hideout we see them both rather woodenly shuffling about to the electrified hillbilly anthem, “Love is Strange [Lotta people take it for a game”]” (written in fact, though not performed by, rhythm and blues dramatist, Bo Diddly). That mouldy fare musters its own kind of dazed cogency, beckoning them to a memorable nightmare in messing with the killing fields that love dishes out to the weak. (By the time of their dance to “A Blossom Fell”—in the headlights of their parked Caddy [tracing all the way forward to Lynch’s Lost Highway]—their lostness spares them some graceful motion.) Headed for the tycoon’s garage, he remarks to her, “Once you get a little money in your pocket you think your troubles are solved. But let me tell you. They’re not.” The guard accompanying him to the Pen via a small regional carrier with red piping, after the guy with a date with the Electric Chair expresses a desire to own his State Trooper’s hat, enthuses, “You’re quite an individual, Kit.” The latter doesn’t miss a beat in coming back with, “Think they’ll take that into consideration?” And Holly, seated in the row ahead and headed for a date with a lawyering family, looks his way, their eyes meet and the tiniest of smiles, evincing nothing on her mind that could lead to traction, crosses her face. We see the clouds their plane rises above, golden and wispy, and we hear a musical motif taking us back one year before the release of Badlands, to Billy Wilder’s Avanti! With its “A Blossom Fell”-kind of score—saccharine and OMG at the same time—priming a story of two lovers whose incongruity dooms them to a truncated dance which, nevertheless, has displayed traction the maturity of which adds yet another haunting component to the ferocity electrocuting Mouchette.