Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wherefore art thou, guilt?

What would Juliet have done if Romeo had taken out a few more Capulets and an assortment of others who just annoyed him along the way? That was one of the questions to run through my mind as I watched Badlands, in which two crazy kids get into some misadventures outside of the backseat of a car.

But what sets Kit and Holly apart from other couples (Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Syd and Nancy, etc.) is that they just don’t seem to be that fond of one another. Sure, Kit’s rampage starts because he wants and cannot have Holly, but their chemistry is minimal onscreen. She comes across shy, awkward, inexperienced, and wanting to be nothing more than the naïve girl she is. And Kit…well, the closest he comes to offering a dove of peace is handing a white chicken over to a friend he later shoots (Cato).

My theory? Holly’s involved far more than the film ever lets on, but since the dead can’t talk, Holly’s the one to get the voiceover and the power to guide our gaze.

There are plenty of examples of unreliable narration. Holly has a tendency to go on and on in flowery terms about her relationship with Kit, but the most we ever see of their intimacy is some uncomfortable kissing. Most of the time we get a mismatch of purple prose overlapping the stark setting and all the waste depicted: garbage, littering, Kit’s tendency to eat a piece of fruit and then toss the rest of it. She cries a bit when her lover shoots her father, but otherwise she acts like a curious child around other victims. She doesn’t run, doesn’t intervene. But we’re supposed to assume her innocence.

Perhaps one of the most telling sequences is the one in which the film fades to sepia tones like a newsreel. Holly regales us with the news back home of their infamy, their reputation, even how her old teacher talks about her while the National Guard is being called out on the manhunt. Her manipulation of what we see is echoed toward the end when she says she doubts Kit really had a flat tire. Voila, we see him shoot out his tire, check his hair, put on a hat, check his pulse, and stack some rocks so he can have a landmark where he was captured.

What we see is Kit’s guilt. What’s suspicious is Holly’s utter lack, even if she asks if her dead father is going to be dead. Oh, and poking the likewise dead Cato with a stick? Creepy.

There has to be more to this dull teen than her Southern belle vacancy. The sheer implausibility of the characters, as discussed by Jason, can in part be due to the fact that we have flawed narration. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. If marrying your lawyer’s son can be considered a victory of any sort.

1 comment:

Jason Pyles, Movie Critic said...


Your observation about unreliable narration is keen. I always forget about the probable subjectivity of the narrator and naively swallow everything he or she says, hook, line and sinker.

But then one must wonder at what point do we draw the line between accepting the end product that the filmmakers gave us -- AND -- employing a healthy skepticism to reach beyond the borders of the film's apparent text?

In other words, how far can we stray from accepting the movie on its own terms before we start talking about another movie altogether, a movie that doesn't exist but perhaps should. (I wandered into this territory above with my post about "There Will Be Blood.")

That said, I agree with your questioning of this narrator, because yes, she is a freak show host and not at all credible.