Critics don’t tend to talk about this much—it’s tantamount to a confession that we don’t always know what we’re doing—but it’s often the case that the most powerful, haunting aspects of a movie are those that we don’t fully understand. Granted, it’s a fine line. When something seems merely incoherent and/or incomprehensible, knives get drawn, and rightly so. What lingers, expands, and takes root is the moment or scene that feels absolutely right in every way, yet still somehow eludes rational comprehension. I’m not necessarily talking, as you might assume, about some surreal David Lynch nightmare vision or absurdist Charlie Kaufman feint, though those may qualify too. Often, it can be something utterly ordinary, even mundane; the mystery isn’t in what happens onscreen, but in its inexplicable effect. Attempting to analyze what makes it work might only kill it, as in the old saw about how explaining a joke is very much like dissecting a frog.
Nonetheless, I’m now gonna see whether I can wrap my head around a brief scene from Terrence Malick’s Badlands that took up permanent residence in my psyche many years ago. I suppose I should note at the outset that I’m not a True Believer where Malick is concerned—The New World, in spite of recurring magnificence, seemed too diffuse to merit the rapturous response it received in some circles, and I found The Thin Red Line’s existential voiceover narration kind of insufferable. But I adore his “early” work (which sounds ludicrous, given the 20-year gap between films two and three, but you know what I mean), and would rank Badlands among the greatest feature debuts ever made. This scene takes place roughly halfway through the film, after fugitives Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) have taken refuge with a friend of Kit’s from his garbage-collecting days. Kit has already plugged the buddy, assuming he was about to call the cops; as the life slowly drains out of him, a car approaches the isolated house.
Not having previously read much about Badlands, I knew it was loosely based on the 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, but I hadn’t realized how closely it follows the real-life sequence of events, even as Malick (who also wrote the screenplay) continually alters them to suit his purpose. The young couple in this scene roughly correspond to Robert Jensen and Carol King, who were killed in an abandoned storm cellar. However, the actual murders were far more brutal than what’s depicted here. Jensen was shot six times in the head, and King was not only shot, but repeatedly stabbed in the abdominal region, allegedly at Fugate’s insistence. Nobody will ever know for certain who did what (Starkweather claimed that Fugate killed King), but it certainly wasn’t the uncertain, remote execution in the movie. In some strange way, what Malick devised seems far more horrible, even though we have no way of knowing (since the film never tells us) whether the couple were killed, or even hit.
Looking at it again, I think it’s partly the sheer flatness that gets to me—both of the landscape and of the performances. Malick is clearly enamored of the image of a house surrounded by a limitless expanse of nature, which would become the primary setting for Days Of Heaven, and this scene seems to have been structured around the shot of Holly and the young woman walking across the grass to the cellar, with nothing but a single dilapidated windmill intruding upon a frame that’s mostly empty blue sky. Their affectless conversation en route could almost have been lifted from a 1950s high-school movie, or one of the era’s industrial shorts urging teens to abstain from pretty much everything. There’s no sense of danger whatsoever, apart from our knowledge that Kit has a gun and has already murdered at least five people; Malick isn’t at all interested in creating tension, or even in giving these two random kids any sort of identity beyond generic apple-cheekedness. They seem to become instantly numbed, like feedlot cattle.
While it may well have played a big role in my reaction, however, that weird sense of disaffection (common in Malick’s work) isn’t actually what stuck with me over the years. What I vividly remembered was Kit politely ushering the couple into the cellar (“skip that,” he says when the guy puts up his hands), locking them inside, then firing at them through a tiny opening at the top of the door. Which is what I need to wrestle with now. Why does that pluck so hard at my nervous system? Why does it seem so much worse—and at the same time, so much more “right,” artistically speaking—than Kit simply shooting both of them in the middle of the field? Is it because the attempted murder comes across like an afterthought? Is it because it reveals Kit, who fancies himself a cross between Jesse James and James Dean (you can see Sheen doing a Dean impression at the top of the scene) as something of a coward? Is it precisely because the fate of these two characters is left as nebulous as they themselves were? Am I ever gonna start answering questions rather than posing them, given my job description?
After much reflection and half a dozen viewings, I reckon it’s got something to do with cowardice. Or maybe gutlessness is a better word. That seemed implausible at first, since Kit has had no compunction about shooting people face to face prior to this moment. It isn’t as if he’s squeamish or devious, someone who jumps you from behind. But this particular killing, though it immediately follows another that shares the same tonal disjunction (I wanted to show you the bit where Kit opens the door for the guy he just shot, but it would have made the clip too long), seems like a turning point somehow. Part of it may be that this is the first homicide that’s really completely unjustifiable, even to a maniac. Everyone Kit has previously killed represented some sort of threat to his relationship with Holly, or to his liberty. But these two victims just showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and to shoot at them through a crack in a door, after implying that they’d only be required to stay put for an hour, seems… you know what, it seems disrespectful. That’s what it is.
And I now realize that I’m not the only one who sees it that way. There’s a lovely detail that escaped me the first time: As Kit and Holly run back to the house following the shooting, in a shot that rhymes with Holly and the woman’s casual walk in the opposite direction, Kit briefly reaches for Holly’s hand. She doesn’t take it. It’ll be a while before the two finally part company, but that rejected grasp is the first indication that Holly may not be prepared to stick with this trigger-happy yahoo no matter what atrocities he commits. And it seems absolutely right that this epiphany hits her not after, say, Kit shoots his buddy square in the chest, but in a case where she doesn’t even know (any more than we do) whether any harm was done. Throughout the film, Holly’s voiceover narration romanticizes whatever crosses her path, but this spineless act resists her love-addled spin in spite of its lack of resolution. In murder, as in gift-giving, it’s the thought that counts.