Badlands

07/02/2012

The Metaphysically Honest

Badlands is a great work of metaphysical honesty, a film where there are numerous deaths but where nobody is guilty, where the death of a dog is probably the most shocking scene in a film where the human slayings are often more explicit, and where the post narrative death of its central character, Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), is thematically no less shocking. To talk of innocence here is at the same time though to talk of several different types of guiltlessness. Whether it is the retributive justice the father (Warren Oates) administers as he shoots his daughter Holly’s dog as punishment for fifteen year old Holly hanging out with the twenty five year old Kit, or Holly telling us in voice over that Kit went to the electric chair, the film here explores powerful but misguided justice. On the other hand, the series of murders Kit commits may fall under the heading of inarticulate expression. When Nietzsche says in Human, All too Human “how is it that every execution offends us more than a murder?”, he answers by saying “it is the coldness of the judges, the painful preparations, the understanding that a man is here being used as a means to deter others.” If the father and the state are ‘innocent’ out of disinterest, Kit is ‘innocent’ out of what we might think, however wrong-headedly, is physiological self-protection. What innocence do we find more attractive, the film might be asking? Is the former human, all too human; the second, closer to the necessity of nature, of an organism seeking expression?

Yet if that were simply the bald dichotomy director Terrence Malick was setting up, the film wouldn’t be of especial interest. It is that he adds to this a sense that neither the father and the state, nor Kit, are really that innocent. The father and the state’s innocence shades into righteousness, while Kit’s innocence shades into ignorant inarticulacy. Their guiltlessness doesn’t quite pass for innocence, so what Malick explores is a sort of culpability without guilt, a sense of moral vacuousness without self-awareness – exemplified in Holly’s voice-over where she says, for example, that she needs to stick by her man after Kit has killed her father. “The most thought provoking thing is that we are still not thinking”, Heidegger proclaimed, and the most thought provoking thing here is that the characters do not think very much about the killing that takes place, but that the film does. What is interesting is not that Malick offers a morality tale, more that he contains the absence of a morality tale within a broader cosmic dimension.

In the New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael attacked the film and ignored this aspect, saying “the movie can be summed up: mass culture banality is killing our souls and making everybody affectless.” But better to think that not only are the characters still not thinking ethically, but at the same time nor does the film: it moves from the immediacy of the characters’ thoughtlessness to the broader sphere of cosmic perishability. If we think of Holly’s family house that Kit torches after he’s killed Holly’s father, the music and the cutting do not indicate Kit’s moral dubiousness, they instead hint at a world in which such acts are insignificant in the broader scheme of perishable beauty. As we watch the house burn, Malick offers numerous angles on the burning items, and the scene functions halfway between an Ozu pillow shot and an Antonioni re-angling. As in Ozu’s films, where the cutaway to nature offers a moment of reflection, and in Antonioni’s work, where the framing the same object from different angles can defamiliarize the utilised space, Malick doesn’t want us to think about the specifics of the story, either about a couple on the run, or about the awfulness of their behaviour, so much as about the perishability of all things as the house goes up in flames. This is in some ways a homage to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, but where the Pink Floyd score there hinted at apocalypse and revolution; the classical music in Badlands is closer to cosmic contemplation. While Kael insists on seeing indie chic, “an artistically self-conscious counter culture movie…”; hindsight gives us the advantage of seeing it within the broader context of Malick’s other work. When Sissy Spacek reports in Ryan Gilbey’s book It Don’t Worry Me that the shoot went on forever, and that she has memories of “everyone tearing across the desert in pursuit of one sunset or another”, that might have seemed for “the crew who kept quitting” a needless indulgence, but it has obviously been at the core of Malick’s work since. Indeed it is the very point his cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World points out when saying in Sight and Sound, “Sometimes I would be preparing a shot with 50 extras and Terry would say, ‘oh look, the wind is blowing in those trees. Let’s run down and bring Pocahontas’”.

Yet anecdotal details of the shoot are not going to take us very far. We need to go back to the idea that Malick’s film is interested in an innocence that shades into ignorance and righteousness, and see how the writer/director bypasses the expected psychology to arrive at an indifference that isn’t culturally cool but cosmically disinterested.  How does Malick move between these two extreme states? The most obvious answer would be that he works, in common parlance, with unsympathetic characters. Yet somehow the phrase doesn’t do justice to the passivity of the characters here.  To be unsympathetic is often to be within the realm of the psychologically adept – to be calculating, cynical, manipulative, callous, selfish etc. But here Kit and Holly are hardly any of these things, and if a good villain often knows exactly the magnitude of their villainy; Kit’s relationship with his bad deeds are curiously naïve. The killing spree is merely a launch pad for his fame, and when he decides to give himself up, moments before doing so he throws together a pile of stones so that it can serve as a monument to where he was captured. What Kit offers is an ignorant villainy, an evil very different from the psychopathological evil of a Norman Bates, or the knowing evil of a Bond baddie high on his own negative accomplishments. Kit is closer to the sort of emotional and intellectual immaturity Jean Piaget interestingly addresses in The Child’s Conception of the World. Here he talks of how an adult “sometimes manifests the processes described in the case of the child, such as the desire to observe even the most insignificant details of the ordinary routine so that the balance of things shall not be upset.” He gives as an example a professor friend who, going on his usual daily walk, was going to cut it short when he had the idea that he should walk the extra fifty metres – to do otherwise might, he believed, bring him bad luck. Such a gesture we might call touching: the childish thinking illustrating adult vulnerability. When Holly explains in voice over the numerous rationales for Kit’s behaviour, our response is to be touched by the combination of innocence and ignorance that drives their actions. These are character for whom reality and fiction are intertwined, and at the same time characters for whom Malick has a quizzical affection. They are experimental characters (no matter if the film is based on an actual case); as though Malick wanted to see what would happen if he combined a famous fifties murder spree with lam conventions, innocent characters with cosmic containment. This is a quizzicality that can lead critics to question Malick’s grasp of character and story: Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic reckoned Malick was a director who could not keep the picture in his head as he was shooting it. But though Kauffmann was talking of Days of Heaven, it is presumably part of the problem Kauffmann sees in Badlands as well, a script that doesn’t benefit, he proposes, from Malick’s direction. However, it is as though Malick was interested in keeping the picture in his head but not necessarily the story; or rather that the story was merely the opportunity to ask questions about a situation.

Now some critics like Kael may conclude that this leads to an indie-indifference, a cool, ironic distancing approach, but it is not truer to say that rather than shrinking empathy through the ironic, Malick expands the empathic into nature? If we think of the moment here when Kit allows a hen to run free after lifting off its cage, or the close up shots of the locusts eating the wheat in Days of Heaven, are these examples of Malick’s indifference to story and character, or quizzicality towards every element contained within the diegesis? Someone focused on character and story will see distancing devices; a viewer open to the multivalent possibilities in film will see an expanding notion of feeling.

Is it not partly the difference between identification and empathy, and is this really what Malick’s film is working with, taking into account our opening comments about the feelings elicited for the dog, and also the death of Kit offered by Holly in voice-over? Where Kauffmann sees a failure to keep the story in his head, Malick wants the story to be small next to the quizzical tone he adopts towards the material. This is not Kael’s irony, nor is it Kauffman’s belief in Malick’s narrative incompetence, more a desire to expand the frontiers of filmic feeling beyond the identificatory. Where Kael sees a detachment from character –and thus the ironic – we also see detachment of character for the purposes of more feeling not less. Feeling becomes permeatingly present rather than characterisationally present, and this means that Malick must attain much of his feeling not through character, but more through the framing of character. Badlands is made up of moments of framing that leads to feeling, rather than close scrutiny of character that leads to identification. When Malick famously shot many of his scenes in Days of Heavenduring ‘magic hour’, it was as though he didn’t expect the characters to evoke the emotion, but that the lighting would do most of the work for them. Where Antonioni, for example, is a great director of evoking feeling through framing and camera movement, Malick is a master of light, a point his cinematographer on Days of Heaven, Nestor Almendros, pointed out when saying he could more or less have shot the film himself – a rare compliment from a cameraman.

However, central to the comment is surely that Malick expects much of the film’s expressiveness to come through the aesthetic containment of the character and not through the character acted. When we compare Malick to other key directors of his generation, including Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Ashby and De Palma, we may note he has generally worked with ‘weaker’ actors: Sheen, Gere, Caveizel and Farrell are hardly De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, or Day Lewis. When Spacek talks about the crew rushing around to catch the sunset this isn’t Malick getting a pretty shot, as Kauffmann believes when saying in The New Republic Malick is a weak director in thrall of cinematography, but that he is looking for the painterly expressiveness that can bypass the actor: that can turn the actor into a figure in lit space. While Almendros talks of Malick’s cinematographic, technical skills, critics much more sensitive than Kauffmann have seen Malick’s lighting as revelatory of a mode of being. As Leo Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit in Forms of Beingdifferentiate between open and closed faces in The Thin Red Line, so we can notice that this differentiation isn’t about acting; it is more about emanation. Both acting and emanation are expressive forms, but where the former indicates a high degree of agency; the latter indicates the opposite: a certain mode reflected. By emphasizing the visual tone over the physical presence, by prioritising the aesthetic over the athletic, the movement of camera over the movement of character, Malick reformulates the hierarchy of self and image. Image here contains the self.

In two shots near the beginning of the film we notice how image contains character rather than the other way round. Here we see Kit in medium long shot, first walking along the street trying to balance a brush in the palm of his hand, and in the second, after a dissolve separating the two shots, we observe him crushing a can. In each instance we observe the action rather than identify with it; where in the next shot the medium close-up shows Kit looking at something, and our position is closer to identification than observation. However, the next shot which shows us what Kit must have been looking at – Holly playing in the garden – also shows us Kit walking into the shot in a device familiar to us from the work of Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos and other modernist masters. The conventional point of view shot becomes the unconventional distancing device, or rather reflective device as we observe Kit going over to Holly. What, we may wonder, does Malick want us to ponder over as opposed to identify with as the camera offers a perspective that seems to want to keep a distance from the characters? This is a perspective that we can read as a cool remove, as Kauffmann believes when saying of Days of Heaven that “all that Malick seems to care about is not to seem to care too much, which he apparently thinks will be ultra-cool in the middle of scenic splendour”. Pauline Kael likewise says of Badlands, “Malick’s conception is so cold and formal that I felt as if I were watching a polished PhD thesis…”

But there is another perspective available, invoked by Bersani and Dutoit, and also interestingly explored in the work of Georges Bataille, and that can allow us to keep opening up our introductory comments about the moral. When talking of The Thin Red Line, Bersani and Dutoit say “Terrence Malick’s 1998 masterpiece The Thin Red Lineexplicitly presents itself as a reflection of the presence of evil in the world.” They invoke the notion of jouissance, a ‘pleasure beyond itself’ and add that Jacques Lacan insists “we cannot avoid the formula that jouissance is evil.” But is this jouissance readily describable, or is jouissance beyond not only pleasure but also language? When Georges Bataille looks at the pleasure of evil in an essay on Sade in Literature and Evil, he does so by reflecting on a story he read where a deportee witnesses someone being tortured, and he decides to reverse this process by imagining the feelings of the torturer. “I rammed my flailing fists into his face; he fell down and my heel finished off the work; disgusted, I spat into a swollen face.” Bataille proposes that when the torturer uses language to justify himself he doesn’t use the language of immediate, ‘evil’ pleasure, but the authority that gives him moral justification after the event. When a character at the beginning of The Thin Red Linesays “this great evil, where does it come from, how did it steal into the world?” or when the voice over in Days of Heaven says there is no such thing as the perfect person, “You’ve just got half devil; half angel in you”, this is Malick’s acceptance of evil’s presence.  But it is also the need to explore it from a place that isn’t a character driven justification of violence, nor is it jouissance as Lacan and others define it, but a meditation on its presence. It is neither the individual violence of the torturer or the criminal, nor the position of the state, but a pensive position that wants to frame the question of violence without either objectifying or adrenalizing it.

This isn’t always a coherent position, and the death of Gere near the end of Days of Heaven in its cross-cutting conventional excitement could have been directed by any number of action-oriented filmmakers. But the early scene of violence in the same film – where Gere fights with his foreman – or the deaths of Kit’s victims in Badlands, creates a space which insists we see the violence at one remove that is less cool withdrawal than troubled detachment. As Gere fights with the foreman, Malick utilises the sounds of the smelting factory so that it drowns out the argument itself as Malick removes us from the adrenaline of the event. In Badlands, as one victim sits dying, Malick shows Kit and Holly’s absurdly misplaced concern: “How’s he doin’” Holly asks, and Kit shrugs and says he got him in the stomach. “Is he upset” Holly replies, in a moment of monumental understatement that in the mid-nineties cinema of Tarantino and co would have signalled categorical irony, but here leaves one wondering about perspective. It is as though it isn’t enough for the film to show it is troubled by the violence, but that it also has to show itself troubled by Kit and Holly’s inability to see the magnitude of their deeds. Rather than an ironic removal, Malick seeks a double pensiveness. We see it also in The Thin Red Line, where whether it is the war at the heart of nature, or the war at Guadalcanal, the purpose is to find a position not within the violence but often at two removes from it. Firstly by refusing to adrenalize it, secondly by decontextualizing it in such a way that American progress is less important than the problem of necessary brutality.

Is this why we proposed that the death of the dog, and also the death of Kit that we hear Holly telling us about in her voice over at the end of the film, seem so horrifying? These are passive deaths: the first is the death of an animal that in no way can be held responsible for its execution: it is killed due to Holly’s misbehaviour; while Kit’s death reminds us of Nietzsche’s comment in Human, All Too Human. These are undeserving deaths, but are not almost all deaths in Malick’s work undeserving, and is this as much because of his position on the deaths as the deaths themselves? When we recall Kael and Kauffmann’s comments, when we keep in mind our analysis of Malick’s visual style, we can better understand what we mean by position, and why Malick’s is very far from an ironic stance.

Two of the main approaches to violence in American film is the derealized and the ironic: in the former the violence can still be taken seriously, but it is a narrative and not a social seriousness. In other words we believe in the violence in relation to character identification and the goal-oriented direction of the story, but we don’t have to believe in the social context in which it takes place: from Rambo to Lethal Weapon. It is a filmic world but not especially self-consciously so. In the nineties in The Last Action Hero and Scream, in Pulp Fiction and True Romance, the violence took on an ironic mode, as even the characters’ goal-oriented behaviour and our sense of identification were called into question. Though Fredric Jameson proposed in The Cultural Turn that Roman Polanski’sChinatown and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat were post-modern because of the way they were aware of the film noir genre’s history, this history didn’t especially stretch to the knowing viewer. There is a world of a difference between Polanski’s film and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and that world of a difference is the degree to which the de-realization is exaggerated, and the ironic brought into play.

The question is whether it is useful to see a film like Badlands as an early example of this cool indifference to character and narrative, or to see instead that it is the opposite of cool indifference: that Malick is looking for detached concern. It is here that those two moments we invoked at the beginning of this piece come to the forefront. In voice over Holly tells us that her father had found out she was running around behind his back, and the punishment for such a misdemeanour “was that he shot my dog”. There is an absurdist dimension to this scene not too different ostensibly to a post-modernist like Tarantino, but with a completely opposite sensibility. If we compare the scene of the dog’s death with the death of the young black man in the back seat of Vincent and Jules’s car in Pulp Fiction, the similarities don’t only lie in the object status of the dog and the young man, but also in the tidy up job required. Yet the differences are vital. As we see the father getting rid of the dog by throwing it into the river, and as we see Vincent and Jules getting help cleaning the back seat of the car, the former offers troubled detachment, the other blasé detachment. Malick achieves this troubled remove partly because he has worked through the absurdity of the father’s position. The father is angry that his daughter has been lying to him, and takes something from her. But what he takes from her is not an object that is confiscated, but an animal that is killed. This is an absurd misapprehension of punishment, where a living thing is killed as no more than an example. While it is true an animal is not culpable the way that a human being is, nevertheless to kill a dog we would still do so only if we thought it deserved it or to stop it from harming another. However Holly’s dog is killed through no agency of its own, and is treated as an object whilst a living form. It is the absurd and faulty reasoning that so disturbs us, with the father’s retributive instinct stronger than his capacity for thinking through the problem he has with his daughter. The absurd here troubles us and, for want of a better term, humanises us, or, perhaps, ethicises us. In Pulp Fiction the opposite is the case as Vincent and Jules kill accidentally but quickly react to the mess as a hassle to be dealt with instead of the human tragedy we might assume it to be. Malick wants to open up our ethical universe and illustrate how the death of a dog shows up the absurdity of retributive justice, while Tarantino plays up the accidental and the idea of a human death as a mess. Malick humanises the animal; Tarantino de-humanizes the human. When Kael says that she finds Badlands’ “cold detachment offensive”, and Kauffmann says “all that Malick seems to care about is not to care too much”, surely it is fairer to say that Malick is interested instead in warm detachment and caring too much: too much, critics might say, for narrative convention, but not enough, Malick would insist, for metaphysical enquiry. When The Thin Red Lineoffers the line about “where does this great evil come from”, it is a question he doesn’t expect to answer, but he may be able to contain it within the cinematographic so that we begin to see the nature of the question.

This leads us into the second ‘appalling’ death in the film: the announcement that Kit was executed. Holly says in voice over “He was sentenced to die in an electric chair on a warm, spring night six months later…” Then we see one of the officers says to Kit that he is quite an individual and Kit asks “do you think they’ll take that into consideration?” The officer says nothing; Kit’s individuality has little to do with it. Now obviously a practically minded viewer may say that after slaying various people across the country then how could he be anything other than punished, but Malick’s achievement as a filmmaker is to be naive out of a certain level of sophistication. He isn’t interested in the mathematical moral logic of an eye for an eye; he is a morally asymmetrical artist looking to go beyond the contours of the question that the narrative logic sets itself. It is partly why we believe critical comments about his cool detachment are so erroneous, and that simply the briefest of comparisons between Malick and a master of cool detachment like Tarantino can show up this error. Tarantino contracts being as he offers a character up as little more than a human heap on the back seat, where Malick expands being as he gives the dog in Badlandsa tragic demise, the locusts a presence in Days of Heaven and crocodiles and exotic birds a vivid existence in The Thin Red Line. Now simply because we have invoked the word being doesn’t mean we have to go down the Heideggerian road despite the well known facts that Malick met Heidegger in the mid-sixties in Germany, that the director went on to teach philosophy at MIT and translated Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons, and that Stanley Cavell has written on the director utilising the German philosopher in The World Viewed. Yet that doesn’t mean we ignore it either: to understand Malick’s warm detachment, to comprehend the particular type of sorrow that his work generates, is to at least address being as a filmic problem.

How for example does a filmmaker manage to avoid being if, as Cavell proposes, cinematic and metaphysical problems share certain similarities? When Cavell says “their presence refers to their absence, their location in another place” then is this consistent with a footnote he offers at the end of The World Viewed where he refers to the secular mystery he sees at work in, amongst others, Badlands? Here there is a “mismatch between the depth to which an ordinary human life requires expression and the surface of ordinary means through which that life must express itself”. Do most films not avoid this presence/absence issue and the mismatch between depth and surface as problems, even though they may be givens of the form? It is as though Malick films from the position of knowing what is on the screen is no longer on the screen; that its presence on the screen also contains its potential absence: it was obviously filmed some time in the past, and our viewing of it in the present acknowledges it as past event. In the theatre this clearly isn’t the case. Most films, however do not include this sense of absence as a given. Malick does. In the scene of the house being burnt in Badlands, in the scene of the fire in the fields of Days of Heaven, Malick doesn’t show us the immediacy of fire but the perishability of things. After Kit torches the house, Kit and Holly drive off and the narrative unit of information has been covered. Yet Malick then cuts back to the house and watches it go up in flames in a series of reframings that resemble, as we’ve suggested, Antonioni’s work and obviously most especially the house exploding at the end of Zabriskie Point. In each instance, in both Malick and Antonioni, the filmmaker invokes presence as absence, as an aesthetic purpose: we witness the presence becoming absent as the objects perish. While some critics may see this as narratively irrelevant, it is vital to the questions Malick is asking, and that lead us into the problem of the mismatch between depth and surface that Cavell invokes. A similar scene in the theatre would have the audience running for their life. Cinema can capture well this sense of presence as past partly because cinema possesses a verisimilitude missing from theatre, and also the presence of absence, and can thus acknowledge the sorrow of what is no longer there, and the realistic nature of that perishability.

Central to Badlands isn’t ironic distance, as we’ve hopefully shown, but a surface texture alluding to depth of feeling that cannot be expressed through character but can be alluded to through form, and that form includes the character but is not the channel through which the information travels. This is partly why we’ve proposed Malick isn’t interested in good actors, no matter if Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are both obviously very efficient performers. When at the beginning of Badlands Kit crushes the can or holds the broom in the palm of his hand while Malick films it in medium long shot, the distance creates a reflective space for the unsaid consistent with Cavell’s claim that Kit and Holly don’t understand their own spirits, “yet it is the spirit that counts”. When Malick shows Kit and Holly taking off after the torching of the house, this isn’t an example of the soul leaving the body but the body leaving the soul. As Kit and Holly are on the run in the lam tradition, and Malick focuses on the shots of the house going up in flames, this is a director less of ironic detachment than one attending to their souls, as though each shot needs to show the diminishing self isn’t a morally bad act, especially, but a soul destroying venture – of both agent and victim. How can Malick film simultaneously the adventure of the youthful spirit and show also the cost of this adventurousness?

Now Cavell sees aspects of the inexpressive in Chaplin and Keaton, in Bogart and Cooper, but where we can see that in older American films the spaces where the spirit cannot express itself, Malick opens up the spaces as ends in themselves. The two moments of Kit at the beginning of the film and the scene of the house burning show how Malick opens up these spaces. The surface texture is the lam movie; the depths lie in showing what sits behind this lam spirit. It is the film that sits within the film, the film’s spiritual search which is not quite the characters’ search, that can lead a critic to see condescension, but it can also lead a critic to see a compassion for the characters that justifies behaviour on a level upon which the characters cannot readily explain themselves. This can result in accusations of patronising the characters on the one hand but can also suggest compassion – compassion in the sense not of the Latin root as explored by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but how he describes its meaning in German, Polish, Czech and other languages. As he differentiates between compassion as pity and compassion as fellow feeling, so we can see that Malick seems to be seeking a fellow feeling that can appear close to condescension because it is a feeling that is shared but at the one remove of a comprehension greater than what the characters can express. When Cavell says “In what spirit does the killer in Badlands say that “he has a lot to say?” In what spirit does Malick baffle this claim by showing the boy unable even to fill a sixty-second recording in a vandalized Record-Your-Own-Voice booth?” Is it an ironic moment for the audience to laugh at Kit’s inarticulacy, or is it an opportunity to comprehend that Kit can have both much to say and be unable to say it?  This is the depth and surface Malick is working with, and can also explain why we proposed that Kit’s death offered by Holly in voice-over contains a chilling inarticulacy. Malick marvellously captures life happening to them no matter the degree to which they becomes agents in their own lives: murdering people who get in your way and traversing the States may give the impression of agency, but Malick’s fundamental sense of being shows characters for whom the freedom of the road is nothing next to the lack of freedom in relation to speech and imagination.

Thus Malick doesn’t condescend to his characters; he muses over what it means to be free, to have the capacity to speak for ourselves and act for ourselves. Maybe that is something nobody has proved capable of, and if Malick were merely to say it is within an educate person’s range and outside his characters’, he would have arrived at the ironic but would he have captured the elegiac, the sense of absence that is central to his work? When Kit wonders if his individuality will be taken into account, it is a question we might all ask ourselves, no matter if our circumstances are rather less straitened. While some may see Malick as a deterministic director, showing characters caught in fateful situations; we’re more inclined to think of characters caught in forms of being constrained, but not necessarily so. It is simply that in the lives most of us live we haven’t created the spaces in our existence that can earn the title of freedom. The State’s slaying of Kit accentuates this point; a conclusion to the film far more important, obviously, than one where a man who commits a murder spree is justifiably murdered for the evil of his deeds by those chasing him, and who feel endangered by the killer as they determine to capture him.

Malick may be more inclined to talk of a final failure of imagination and opportunity instead of evil. If all of us have both half-devil, half angel in us what is it that brings out one or the other? Whether it is the State killing Kit, or the father killing the dog, one senses living beings killed as examples to others. This is the powerful justice at work with which we began the essay, but Malick proposes that is hardly a cure for the greater problem of ignorant inarticulacy, as if Kit’s spree is an extension of his inability to articulate his need for freedom, an inarticulacy beautifully captured, as Cavell notes, in the Record Your Own Voice scene. But it is also, of course, a problem for us all, as we search out with which to make the human, all too human honest to itself. As Cavell says, “my problem seems to me to be that human existence is metaphysically honest”. Kit’s killing spree and his subsequent execution seems to do nothing to counter that metaphysical dishonesty, but Malick’s film is part of the attempt to put the metaphysically honest on the screen.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Badlands

The Metaphysically Honest

Badlands is a great work of metaphysical honesty, a film where there are numerous deaths but where nobody is guilty, where the death of a dog is probably the most shocking scene in a film where the human slayings are often more explicit, and where the post narrative death of its central character, Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), is thematically no less shocking. To talk of innocence here is at the same time though to talk of several different types of guiltlessness. Whether it is the retributive justice the father (Warren Oates) administers as he shoots his daughter Holly's dog as punishment for fifteen year old Holly hanging out with the twenty five year old Kit, or Holly telling us in voice over that Kit went to the electric chair, the film here explores powerful but misguided justice. On the other hand, the series of murders Kit commits may fall under the heading of inarticulate expression. When Nietzsche says in Human, All too Human "how is it that every execution offends us more than a murder?", he answers by saying "it is the coldness of the judges, the painful preparations, the understanding that a man is here being used as a means to deter others." If the father and the state are 'innocent' out of disinterest, Kit is 'innocent' out of what we might think, however wrong-headedly, is physiological self-protection. What innocence do we find more attractive, the film might be asking? Is the former human, all too human; the second, closer to the necessity of nature, of an organism seeking expression?

Yet if that were simply the bald dichotomy director Terrence Malick was setting up, the film wouldn't be of especial interest. It is that he adds to this a sense that neither the father and the state, nor Kit, are really that innocent. The father and the state's innocence shades into righteousness, while Kit's innocence shades into ignorant inarticulacy. Their guiltlessness doesn't quite pass for innocence, so what Malick explores is a sort of culpability without guilt, a sense of moral vacuousness without self-awareness - exemplified in Holly's voice-over where she says, for example, that she needs to stick by her man after Kit has killed her father. "The most thought provoking thing is that we are still not thinking", Heidegger proclaimed, and the most thought provoking thing here is that the characters do not think very much about the killing that takes place, but that the film does. What is interesting is not that Malick offers a morality tale, more that he contains the absence of a morality tale within a broader cosmic dimension.

In the New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael attacked the film and ignored this aspect, saying "the movie can be summed up: mass culture banality is killing our souls and making everybody affectless." But better to think that not only are the characters still not thinking ethically, but at the same time nor does the film: it moves from the immediacy of the characters' thoughtlessness to the broader sphere of cosmic perishability. If we think of Holly's family house that Kit torches after he's killed Holly's father, the music and the cutting do not indicate Kit's moral dubiousness, they instead hint at a world in which such acts are insignificant in the broader scheme of perishable beauty. As we watch the house burn, Malick offers numerous angles on the burning items, and the scene functions halfway between an Ozu pillow shot and an Antonioni re-angling. As in Ozu's films, where the cutaway to nature offers a moment of reflection, and in Antonioni's work, where the framing the same object from different angles can defamiliarize the utilised space, Malick doesn't want us to think about the specifics of the story, either about a couple on the run, or about the awfulness of their behaviour, so much as about the perishability of all things as the house goes up in flames. This is in some ways a homage to Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, but where the Pink Floyd score there hinted at apocalypse and revolution; the classical music in Badlands is closer to cosmic contemplation. While Kael insists on seeing indie chic, "an artistically self-conscious counter culture movie..."; hindsight gives us the advantage of seeing it within the broader context of Malick's other work. When Sissy Spacek reports in Ryan Gilbey's book It Don't Worry Me that the shoot went on forever, and that she has memories of "everyone tearing across the desert in pursuit of one sunset or another", that might have seemed for "the crew who kept quitting" a needless indulgence, but it has obviously been at the core of Malick's work since. Indeed it is the very point his cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World points out when saying in Sight and Sound, "Sometimes I would be preparing a shot with 50 extras and Terry would say, 'oh look, the wind is blowing in those trees. Let's run down and bring Pocahontas'".

Yet anecdotal details of the shoot are not going to take us very far. We need to go back to the idea that Malick's film is interested in an innocence that shades into ignorance and righteousness, and see how the writer/director bypasses the expected psychology to arrive at an indifference that isn't culturally cool but cosmically disinterested. How does Malick move between these two extreme states? The most obvious answer would be that he works, in common parlance, with unsympathetic characters. Yet somehow the phrase doesn't do justice to the passivity of the characters here. To be unsympathetic is often to be within the realm of the psychologically adept - to be calculating, cynical, manipulative, callous, selfish etc. But here Kit and Holly are hardly any of these things, and if a good villain often knows exactly the magnitude of their villainy; Kit's relationship with his bad deeds are curiously nave. The killing spree is merely a launch pad for his fame, and when he decides to give himself up, moments before doing so he throws together a pile of stones so that it can serve as a monument to where he was captured. What Kit offers is an ignorant villainy, an evil very different from the psychopathological evil of a Norman Bates, or the knowing evil of a Bond baddie high on his own negative accomplishments. Kit is closer to the sort of emotional and intellectual immaturity Jean Piaget interestingly addresses in The Child's Conception of the World. Here he talks of how an adult "sometimes manifests the processes described in the case of the child, such as the desire to observe even the most insignificant details of the ordinary routine so that the balance of things shall not be upset." He gives as an example a professor friend who, going on his usual daily walk, was going to cut it short when he had the idea that he should walk the extra fifty metres - to do otherwise might, he believed, bring him bad luck. Such a gesture we might call touching: the childish thinking illustrating adult vulnerability. When Holly explains in voice over the numerous rationales for Kit's behaviour, our response is to be touched by the combination of innocence and ignorance that drives their actions. These are character for whom reality and fiction are intertwined, and at the same time characters for whom Malick has a quizzical affection. They are experimental characters (no matter if the film is based on an actual case); as though Malick wanted to see what would happen if he combined a famous fifties murder spree with lam conventions, innocent characters with cosmic containment. This is a quizzicality that can lead critics to question Malick's grasp of character and story: Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic reckoned Malick was a director who could not keep the picture in his head as he was shooting it. But though Kauffmann was talking of Days of Heaven, it is presumably part of the problem Kauffmann sees in Badlands as well, a script that doesn't benefit, he proposes, from Malick's direction. However, it is as though Malick was interested in keeping the picture in his head but not necessarily the story; or rather that the story was merely the opportunity to ask questions about a situation.

Now some critics like Kael may conclude that this leads to an indie-indifference, a cool, ironic distancing approach, but it is not truer to say that rather than shrinking empathy through the ironic, Malick expands the empathic into nature? If we think of the moment here when Kit allows a hen to run free after lifting off its cage, or the close up shots of the locusts eating the wheat in Days of Heaven, are these examples of Malick's indifference to story and character, or quizzicality towards every element contained within the diegesis? Someone focused on character and story will see distancing devices; a viewer open to the multivalent possibilities in film will see an expanding notion of feeling.

Is it not partly the difference between identification and empathy, and is this really what Malick's film is working with, taking into account our opening comments about the feelings elicited for the dog, and also the death of Kit offered by Holly in voice-over? Where Kauffmann sees a failure to keep the story in his head, Malick wants the story to be small next to the quizzical tone he adopts towards the material. This is not Kael's irony, nor is it Kauffman's belief in Malick's narrative incompetence, more a desire to expand the frontiers of filmic feeling beyond the identificatory. Where Kael sees a detachment from character -and thus the ironic - we also see detachment of character for the purposes of more feeling not less. Feeling becomes permeatingly present rather than characterisationally present, and this means that Malick must attain much of his feeling not through character, but more through the framing of character. Badlands is made up of moments of framing that leads to feeling, rather than close scrutiny of character that leads to identification. When Malick famously shot many of his scenes in Days of Heavenduring 'magic hour', it was as though he didn't expect the characters to evoke the emotion, but that the lighting would do most of the work for them. Where Antonioni, for example, is a great director of evoking feeling through framing and camera movement, Malick is a master of light, a point his cinematographer on Days of Heaven, Nestor Almendros, pointed out when saying he could more or less have shot the film himself - a rare compliment from a cameraman.

However, central to the comment is surely that Malick expects much of the film's expressiveness to come through the aesthetic containment of the character and not through the character acted. When we compare Malick to other key directors of his generation, including Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Ashby and De Palma, we may note he has generally worked with 'weaker' actors: Sheen, Gere, Caveizel and Farrell are hardly De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, or Day Lewis. When Spacek talks about the crew rushing around to catch the sunset this isn't Malick getting a pretty shot, as Kauffmann believes when saying in The New Republic Malick is a weak director in thrall of cinematography, but that he is looking for the painterly expressiveness that can bypass the actor: that can turn the actor into a figure in lit space. While Almendros talks of Malick's cinematographic, technical skills, critics much more sensitive than Kauffmann have seen Malick's lighting as revelatory of a mode of being. As Leo Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit in Forms of Beingdifferentiate between open and closed faces in The Thin Red Line, so we can notice that this differentiation isn't about acting; it is more about emanation. Both acting and emanation are expressive forms, but where the former indicates a high degree of agency; the latter indicates the opposite: a certain mode reflected. By emphasizing the visual tone over the physical presence, by prioritising the aesthetic over the athletic, the movement of camera over the movement of character, Malick reformulates the hierarchy of self and image. Image here contains the self.

In two shots near the beginning of the film we notice how image contains character rather than the other way round. Here we see Kit in medium long shot, first walking along the street trying to balance a brush in the palm of his hand, and in the second, after a dissolve separating the two shots, we observe him crushing a can. In each instance we observe the action rather than identify with it; where in the next shot the medium close-up shows Kit looking at something, and our position is closer to identification than observation. However, the next shot which shows us what Kit must have been looking at - Holly playing in the garden - also shows us Kit walking into the shot in a device familiar to us from the work of Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos and other modernist masters. The conventional point of view shot becomes the unconventional distancing device, or rather reflective device as we observe Kit going over to Holly. What, we may wonder, does Malick want us to ponder over as opposed to identify with as the camera offers a perspective that seems to want to keep a distance from the characters? This is a perspective that we can read as a cool remove, as Kauffmann believes when saying of Days of Heaven that "all that Malick seems to care about is not to seem to care too much, which he apparently thinks will be ultra-cool in the middle of scenic splendour". Pauline Kael likewise says of Badlands, "Malick's conception is so cold and formal that I felt as if I were watching a polished PhD thesis..."

But there is another perspective available, invoked by Bersani and Dutoit, and also interestingly explored in the work of Georges Bataille, and that can allow us to keep opening up our introductory comments about the moral. When talking of The Thin Red Line, Bersani and Dutoit say "Terrence Malick's 1998 masterpiece The Thin Red Lineexplicitly presents itself as a reflection of the presence of evil in the world." They invoke the notion of jouissance, a 'pleasure beyond itself' and add that Jacques Lacan insists "we cannot avoid the formula that jouissance is evil." But is this jouissance readily describable, or is jouissance beyond not only pleasure but also language? When Georges Bataille looks at the pleasure of evil in an essay on Sade in Literature and Evil, he does so by reflecting on a story he read where a deportee witnesses someone being tortured, and he decides to reverse this process by imagining the feelings of the torturer. "I rammed my flailing fists into his face; he fell down and my heel finished off the work; disgusted, I spat into a swollen face." Bataille proposes that when the torturer uses language to justify himself he doesn't use the language of immediate, 'evil' pleasure, but the authority that gives him moral justification after the event. When a character at the beginning of The Thin Red Linesays "this great evil, where does it come from, how did it steal into the world?" or when the voice over in Days of Heaven says there is no such thing as the perfect person, "You've just got half devil; half angel in you", this is Malick's acceptance of evil's presence. But it is also the need to explore it from a place that isn't a character driven justification of violence, nor is it jouissance as Lacan and others define it, but a meditation on its presence. It is neither the individual violence of the torturer or the criminal, nor the position of the state, but a pensive position that wants to frame the question of violence without either objectifying or adrenalizing it.

This isn't always a coherent position, and the death of Gere near the end of Days of Heaven in its cross-cutting conventional excitement could have been directed by any number of action-oriented filmmakers. But the early scene of violence in the same film - where Gere fights with his foreman - or the deaths of Kit's victims in Badlands, creates a space which insists we see the violence at one remove that is less cool withdrawal than troubled detachment. As Gere fights with the foreman, Malick utilises the sounds of the smelting factory so that it drowns out the argument itself as Malick removes us from the adrenaline of the event. In Badlands, as one victim sits dying, Malick shows Kit and Holly's absurdly misplaced concern: "How's he doin'" Holly asks, and Kit shrugs and says he got him in the stomach. "Is he upset" Holly replies, in a moment of monumental understatement that in the mid-nineties cinema of Tarantino and co would have signalled categorical irony, but here leaves one wondering about perspective. It is as though it isn't enough for the film to show it is troubled by the violence, but that it also has to show itself troubled by Kit and Holly's inability to see the magnitude of their deeds. Rather than an ironic removal, Malick seeks a double pensiveness. We see it also in The Thin Red Line, where whether it is the war at the heart of nature, or the war at Guadalcanal, the purpose is to find a position not within the violence but often at two removes from it. Firstly by refusing to adrenalize it, secondly by decontextualizing it in such a way that American progress is less important than the problem of necessary brutality.

Is this why we proposed that the death of the dog, and also the death of Kit that we hear Holly telling us about in her voice over at the end of the film, seem so horrifying? These are passive deaths: the first is the death of an animal that in no way can be held responsible for its execution: it is killed due to Holly's misbehaviour; while Kit's death reminds us of Nietzsche's comment in Human, All Too Human. These are undeserving deaths, but are not almost all deaths in Malick's work undeserving, and is this as much because of his position on the deaths as the deaths themselves? When we recall Kael and Kauffmann's comments, when we keep in mind our analysis of Malick's visual style, we can better understand what we mean by position, and why Malick's is very far from an ironic stance.

Two of the main approaches to violence in American film is the derealized and the ironic: in the former the violence can still be taken seriously, but it is a narrative and not a social seriousness. In other words we believe in the violence in relation to character identification and the goal-oriented direction of the story, but we don't have to believe in the social context in which it takes place: from Rambo to Lethal Weapon. It is a filmic world but not especially self-consciously so. In the nineties in The Last Action Hero and Scream, in Pulp Fiction and True Romance, the violence took on an ironic mode, as even the characters' goal-oriented behaviour and our sense of identification were called into question. Though Fredric Jameson proposed in The Cultural Turn that Roman Polanski'sChinatown and Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat were post-modern because of the way they were aware of the film noir genre's history, this history didn't especially stretch to the knowing viewer. There is a world of a difference between Polanski's film and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and that world of a difference is the degree to which the de-realization is exaggerated, and the ironic brought into play.

The question is whether it is useful to see a film like Badlands as an early example of this cool indifference to character and narrative, or to see instead that it is the opposite of cool indifference: that Malick is looking for detached concern. It is here that those two moments we invoked at the beginning of this piece come to the forefront. In voice over Holly tells us that her father had found out she was running around behind his back, and the punishment for such a misdemeanour "was that he shot my dog". There is an absurdist dimension to this scene not too different ostensibly to a post-modernist like Tarantino, but with a completely opposite sensibility. If we compare the scene of the dog's death with the death of the young black man in the back seat of Vincent and Jules's car in Pulp Fiction, the similarities don't only lie in the object status of the dog and the young man, but also in the tidy up job required. Yet the differences are vital. As we see the father getting rid of the dog by throwing it into the river, and as we see Vincent and Jules getting help cleaning the back seat of the car, the former offers troubled detachment, the other blas detachment. Malick achieves this troubled remove partly because he has worked through the absurdity of the father's position. The father is angry that his daughter has been lying to him, and takes something from her. But what he takes from her is not an object that is confiscated, but an animal that is killed. This is an absurd misapprehension of punishment, where a living thing is killed as no more than an example. While it is true an animal is not culpable the way that a human being is, nevertheless to kill a dog we would still do so only if we thought it deserved it or to stop it from harming another. However Holly's dog is killed through no agency of its own, and is treated as an object whilst a living form. It is the absurd and faulty reasoning that so disturbs us, with the father's retributive instinct stronger than his capacity for thinking through the problem he has with his daughter. The absurd here troubles us and, for want of a better term, humanises us, or, perhaps, ethicises us. In Pulp Fiction the opposite is the case as Vincent and Jules kill accidentally but quickly react to the mess as a hassle to be dealt with instead of the human tragedy we might assume it to be. Malick wants to open up our ethical universe and illustrate how the death of a dog shows up the absurdity of retributive justice, while Tarantino plays up the accidental and the idea of a human death as a mess. Malick humanises the animal; Tarantino de-humanizes the human. When Kael says that she finds Badlands' "cold detachment offensive", and Kauffmann says "all that Malick seems to care about is not to care too much", surely it is fairer to say that Malick is interested instead in warm detachment and caring too much: too much, critics might say, for narrative convention, but not enough, Malick would insist, for metaphysical enquiry. When The Thin Red Lineoffers the line about "where does this great evil come from", it is a question he doesn't expect to answer, but he may be able to contain it within the cinematographic so that we begin to see the nature of the question.

This leads us into the second 'appalling' death in the film: the announcement that Kit was executed. Holly says in voice over "He was sentenced to die in an electric chair on a warm, spring night six months later..." Then we see one of the officers says to Kit that he is quite an individual and Kit asks "do you think they'll take that into consideration?" The officer says nothing; Kit's individuality has little to do with it. Now obviously a practically minded viewer may say that after slaying various people across the country then how could he be anything other than punished, but Malick's achievement as a filmmaker is to be naive out of a certain level of sophistication. He isn't interested in the mathematical moral logic of an eye for an eye; he is a morally asymmetrical artist looking to go beyond the contours of the question that the narrative logic sets itself. It is partly why we believe critical comments about his cool detachment are so erroneous, and that simply the briefest of comparisons between Malick and a master of cool detachment like Tarantino can show up this error. Tarantino contracts being as he offers a character up as little more than a human heap on the back seat, where Malick expands being as he gives the dog in Badlandsa tragic demise, the locusts a presence in Days of Heaven and crocodiles and exotic birds a vivid existence in The Thin Red Line. Now simply because we have invoked the word being doesn't mean we have to go down the Heideggerian road despite the well known facts that Malick met Heidegger in the mid-sixties in Germany, that the director went on to teach philosophy at MIT and translated Heidegger's The Essence of Reasons, and that Stanley Cavell has written on the director utilising the German philosopher in The World Viewed. Yet that doesn't mean we ignore it either: to understand Malick's warm detachment, to comprehend the particular type of sorrow that his work generates, is to at least address being as a filmic problem.

How for example does a filmmaker manage to avoid being if, as Cavell proposes, cinematic and metaphysical problems share certain similarities? When Cavell says "their presence refers to their absence, their location in another place" then is this consistent with a footnote he offers at the end of The World Viewed where he refers to the secular mystery he sees at work in, amongst others, Badlands? Here there is a "mismatch between the depth to which an ordinary human life requires expression and the surface of ordinary means through which that life must express itself". Do most films not avoid this presence/absence issue and the mismatch between depth and surface as problems, even though they may be givens of the form? It is as though Malick films from the position of knowing what is on the screen is no longer on the screen; that its presence on the screen also contains its potential absence: it was obviously filmed some time in the past, and our viewing of it in the present acknowledges it as past event. In the theatre this clearly isn't the case. Most films, however do not include this sense of absence as a given. Malick does. In the scene of the house being burnt in Badlands, in the scene of the fire in the fields of Days of Heaven, Malick doesn't show us the immediacy of fire but the perishability of things. After Kit torches the house, Kit and Holly drive off and the narrative unit of information has been covered. Yet Malick then cuts back to the house and watches it go up in flames in a series of reframings that resemble, as we've suggested, Antonioni's work and obviously most especially the house exploding at the end of Zabriskie Point. In each instance, in both Malick and Antonioni, the filmmaker invokes presence as absence, as an aesthetic purpose: we witness the presence becoming absent as the objects perish. While some critics may see this as narratively irrelevant, it is vital to the questions Malick is asking, and that lead us into the problem of the mismatch between depth and surface that Cavell invokes. A similar scene in the theatre would have the audience running for their life. Cinema can capture well this sense of presence as past partly because cinema possesses a verisimilitude missing from theatre, and also the presence of absence, and can thus acknowledge the sorrow of what is no longer there, and the realistic nature of that perishability.

Central to Badlands isn't ironic distance, as we've hopefully shown, but a surface texture alluding to depth of feeling that cannot be expressed through character but can be alluded to through form, and that form includes the character but is not the channel through which the information travels. This is partly why we've proposed Malick isn't interested in good actors, no matter if Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are both obviously very efficient performers. When at the beginning of Badlands Kit crushes the can or holds the broom in the palm of his hand while Malick films it in medium long shot, the distance creates a reflective space for the unsaid consistent with Cavell's claim that Kit and Holly don't understand their own spirits, "yet it is the spirit that counts". When Malick shows Kit and Holly taking off after the torching of the house, this isn't an example of the soul leaving the body but the body leaving the soul. As Kit and Holly are on the run in the lam tradition, and Malick focuses on the shots of the house going up in flames, this is a director less of ironic detachment than one attending to their souls, as though each shot needs to show the diminishing self isn't a morally bad act, especially, but a soul destroying venture - of both agent and victim. How can Malick film simultaneously the adventure of the youthful spirit and show also the cost of this adventurousness?

Now Cavell sees aspects of the inexpressive in Chaplin and Keaton, in Bogart and Cooper, but where we can see that in older American films the spaces where the spirit cannot express itself, Malick opens up the spaces as ends in themselves. The two moments of Kit at the beginning of the film and the scene of the house burning show how Malick opens up these spaces. The surface texture is the lam movie; the depths lie in showing what sits behind this lam spirit. It is the film that sits within the film, the film's spiritual search which is not quite the characters' search, that can lead a critic to see condescension, but it can also lead a critic to see a compassion for the characters that justifies behaviour on a level upon which the characters cannot readily explain themselves. This can result in accusations of patronising the characters on the one hand but can also suggest compassion - compassion in the sense not of the Latin root as explored by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but how he describes its meaning in German, Polish, Czech and other languages. As he differentiates between compassion as pity and compassion as fellow feeling, so we can see that Malick seems to be seeking a fellow feeling that can appear close to condescension because it is a feeling that is shared but at the one remove of a comprehension greater than what the characters can express. When Cavell says "In what spirit does the killer in Badlands say that "he has a lot to say?" In what spirit does Malick baffle this claim by showing the boy unable even to fill a sixty-second recording in a vandalized Record-Your-Own-Voice booth?" Is it an ironic moment for the audience to laugh at Kit's inarticulacy, or is it an opportunity to comprehend that Kit can have both much to say and be unable to say it? This is the depth and surface Malick is working with, and can also explain why we proposed that Kit's death offered by Holly in voice-over contains a chilling inarticulacy. Malick marvellously captures life happening to them no matter the degree to which they becomes agents in their own lives: murdering people who get in your way and traversing the States may give the impression of agency, but Malick's fundamental sense of being shows characters for whom the freedom of the road is nothing next to the lack of freedom in relation to speech and imagination.

Thus Malick doesn't condescend to his characters; he muses over what it means to be free, to have the capacity to speak for ourselves and act for ourselves. Maybe that is something nobody has proved capable of, and if Malick were merely to say it is within an educate person's range and outside his characters', he would have arrived at the ironic but would he have captured the elegiac, the sense of absence that is central to his work? When Kit wonders if his individuality will be taken into account, it is a question we might all ask ourselves, no matter if our circumstances are rather less straitened. While some may see Malick as a deterministic director, showing characters caught in fateful situations; we're more inclined to think of characters caught in forms of being constrained, but not necessarily so. It is simply that in the lives most of us live we haven't created the spaces in our existence that can earn the title of freedom. The State's slaying of Kit accentuates this point; a conclusion to the film far more important, obviously, than one where a man who commits a murder spree is justifiably murdered for the evil of his deeds by those chasing him, and who feel endangered by the killer as they determine to capture him.

Malick may be more inclined to talk of a final failure of imagination and opportunity instead of evil. If all of us have both half-devil, half angel in us what is it that brings out one or the other? Whether it is the State killing Kit, or the father killing the dog, one senses living beings killed as examples to others. This is the powerful justice at work with which we began the essay, but Malick proposes that is hardly a cure for the greater problem of ignorant inarticulacy, as if Kit's spree is an extension of his inability to articulate his need for freedom, an inarticulacy beautifully captured, as Cavell notes, in the Record Your Own Voice scene. But it is also, of course, a problem for us all, as we search out with which to make the human, all too human honest to itself. As Cavell says, "my problem seems to me to be that human existence is metaphysically honest". Kit's killing spree and his subsequent execution seems to do nothing to counter that metaphysical dishonesty, but Malick's film is part of the attempt to put the metaphysically honest on the screen.


© Tony McKibbin