“Life” Academic Writing

1,500 words on the themes of Terrence Malik’s film Badlands. Written December 2013.
There are a hundred ways to approach the story of two young lovers on a killing spree. The narrative could focus on their deep passion, on their journey through Americana, or revel in their gory acts of unprovoked violence. Badlands by Terrence Malik orbits around none of these aspects, although his interpretation of the Starkweather murders includes all three.  Terrence Malik has created a movie where the story is about death, but the theme is about life.  By treating animal, plant, and human death as equals on film, Badlands normalizes death so it can focus on the journey of life. In this way, Badlands contextualizes violent acts and turns them into events of natural beauty. 
This transformation is achieved using these following factors. The first is that all living things in frame are given an equal opportunity to live, and are filmed in a similar way to human characters. The second is about the cycle, moving the lens out from an individual life. Early in the film all the dead bodies are given back to the earth, back to the river, or consumed in fire. One life is only a part of the whole structure. Lastly, because of the previous points, the act of killing a human loses it’s normal shock value. When one is so vigorously alive, and the death of a man is no more important than the death of a cow, why worry? Why look back?
In the very first shot of this movie, Holly is on her bed with her dog. They are both about the same size in the shot and centered in the frame. The dog is even slightly in the foreground. Their movements mirror each others. His dark fur contrasts with her white blouse. It’s a long take, and Holly is seen over the dog’s shoulder. As her voice over drones on, you can almost believe she’s talking to her dog. These are all careful choices, and the last effect is that the dog is a part of Holly. In the narration he is introduced as part of her life, part of her pre-South Dakota happiness. This dog is probably the clearest example of the movie’s treatment of mortality. Holly’s dog isn’t Lassie. He’s just a dog. He’s nameless, has no personality or personification. His contribution to the plot is that he introduces the idea of a violent death. 
When the father shoots the dog, Holly is positioned in a line right behind her pet. If there was no dog that bullet would have gone right into her heart. Holly’s father was willing to fire looking into the eyes of his daughter. So right here is a connection between the dog’s death and a human death. They involve the same gun, the same aiming, the same direction of fire. If we believe that Holly’s dog really was a metaphor for her previous life, than that’s dog’s death means more than the ending of a life. It means Holly’s father has severed all ties with half of his daughter. This is the end of the idyllic period in her life. While the the dog’s death is certainly a plot catalyst, it also can be more broadly considered a metaphor for the course of life in general, and the often violent separation from the present and childhood memories. 
When I first saw this film, I couldn’t understand why, but there was something compelling about the brief scene where the father dumped the body of the dog in the river. Upon re-watching, I realized it was related to the scene where Holly’s catfish got sick and she dumped him the garden. They are polar opposites: the dog’s body returns to the river, and the catfish’s body returns to the land. It’s carefully crafted misé-en-scene. It is as dark as it is comic. The scene follows the dog and fish on screen for slightly longer than usual, and the camera gets right up close to the gasping catfish. During the catfish moment, the camera is close enough to see it’s eyes, see the struggle. These two scenes imply that death is not painless, but also part of a cycle. Whether through violence or illness, a dead body returns to the earth. The choice to highlight the cycle of life is one way to value of a non-human being. Death is a constant; we are all consumed by it. Death is also bizarre and shocking, and the juxtaposition of catfish dying on land and dog dying in the river shows us that a singular life can lead unexpected places. Kit’s life could begin and end as a normal garbage-thrower, but all it takes is one murder and some manic tendencies and he dies a legend. It’s the process of a life that matters. Part of that process is the manner of death. 
Kit has a revealing moment about death during the brief montage about his life has a cowboy. Similar to most of the film, a lot of time is spent on portrait-style frames of animals. The cows are shown as individuals, head mostly in the frame, camera panning to follow them and their give context to their actions. In most films, animals are in the background. They are presented as a herd, and almost always a human is in the frame. However, here Malick gives a lot of screen time to feedlot cows just being cows, and in all states. The short scene that’s telling about Kit is that a sick cow dies. Slightly off-center in the frame, braying and bellowing in a morose way that’s entirely contradictory to the upbeat music. Afterwards Kit is shows standing on top of the dead cow, eyes gazing into the distance, in performance largely nonchalant. In this moment, the movie turns the concept of death on it’s head. 
The cow dying is not a plot point, like the dog or the dying catfish, but a thematic gesture. The music score mixes the cows’ death with happy cows’ life, making this event no more grand than shots of the feedlot. A dying cow is routine, part of the every day. The upbeat music ties these short sequences of a cow’s life together, to be absorbed as a whole by the audience. These are the lives of the animals. As many differences as there are, humans are animals. Our lives and deaths are part of the cycle, and each moment of that cycle is not drastically different from the next. 
When Kit steps on top of the body of the dead cow, there are many layers of symbolic imagery working at once. He is near the top of the frame, the highest point in a flat herd of standing cows. In a very literal way, he has used the cows’ death to achieve even greater status. He becomes an individual among a herd. Soon, Kit will use his murders as away to build up his own importance. He believes his words are meaningful just because he’s famous and wanted. Even as he increases his own visual power, using a dead body as stepping stool is an irreverent act. A dead cow has no inherent value, there’s is no respect for it’s body now that life has fled. Treating a body in this way only reinforces the idea that life is the important event, not death. The act of death is only the absence of value, the end of experience. It has no value in and of itself. Of course, this is also foreshadowing Kit’s treatment of killing people. He has an interest in their lives, but their deaths are of little consequence.
As the murder spree continues, the audience gets used to the character’s reactions to death. Each murder becomes a little less jarring, a little more routine. The escalation was slow, but Malik trained us with a series of small deaths. The dead dog carcass on the garbage run, the catfish, the feedlot cow, Holly’s childhood dog, all were the non-human deaths that shaped our perception of the murder of Holly’s father.  Each death was treated similarly: the subject was most of the frame, we were not shown the actual moment of passing, and other things were happening (a voice over, a cutaway to a near location) during the death. This diffuse way of framing death sets that event in the larger story.  In this universe, the manner of a life is much more important than the way of it’s passing. Each person’s story is long and complex, and dying is only one small part of that story, even if it is the last part. Terrence Malik chose a story about a killing spree, but instead of focusing on the absence of a half-dozen people, he made it about the lives of two people who, for a short time, had nothing but each other and a desire to be known. 

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