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How a Terrence Malick masterpiece inspired a Bruce Springsteen classic


Serial killers are responsible for less than 1% of murders in the US each year, and Scott Bonn, a sociologist at Drew University, estimates there are less than two dozen active at any given time. Yet, our fascination with this tiny, grisly asterisk to society endures, often dwarfing far larger problems, which he puts down to a “kind of cultural hysteria”.

This morbid fascination is a global phenomenon, for better or for worse, and most likely for worse, we can’t escape the psychological draw of the demimonde’s darkest characters. Filmmakers and songwriters are seemingly the most eager moths to this ominously alluring flame. The search for source material that spawns an interesting hit has led artists to the degenerate realms of everyone from Charles Manson to Jack the Ripper.

Rarely, however, have the depths of depravity produced anything as beautiful as Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Malick’s masterful 1973 movie takes on the story of Charles Starkweather. The murderous 19-year-old who embarked on a deranged killing spree in 1958, taking his 14-year-old girlfriend along with him, as though it was merely a road trip. 

However, Malick takes a unique approach to handling the aesthetics of the film in so many ways. On the surface, it is a movie about a raging homicidal rampage, and considering the James Dean wannabe portrayed by Martin Sheen is ten years older than Sissy Spacek’s 15-year-old Holly, it’s about paedophilia too. However, it never comes close to materialising as that on-screen, without trivialising either of those atrocious elements, the movie simply unspools in a dangerously drifting tranquillity, like the long midwestern roads ahead of the disillusioned duo.

The murders are merely as important as the music, the elemental glowing golden-hour landscapes, and sanguine beat-prose of young love, lust or ambivalence, all swirling on a canvas of youth to form an entrancing disassociation of action and aesthetic that unfurls like French Expressionism on screen. The result is a piece of art that proved to be one of the most influential of the seventies and considering that Malick is regarded amongst cinema’s most seminal directors is certainly saying something. 

The main music theme, Carl Orff’s ‘Gassenhauer’, has featured in modernised guises on films like True Romance and even made it onto The Simpsons. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then down-right copying must be the highest compliment of all, for that alone it deserves a place amidst the very best. Whilst the Bruce Springsteen track that the movie spawned doesn’t take a leaf out of the soundtrack’s book in a musicological sense, his tender folk melody coupled with the harrowing subject matter has an unmistakable Badlands feel. 

His track ‘Nebraska’ transposes not just the plot of the film but also its feel to depict the dark legacy of Starkweather. Released on his 1982 solo album of the same name he weaves a tale of desperate people over simple guitar and harmonica. Coupling Malick’s mood with the prose of legendary writer Flannery O’Connor, Springsteen produces one of his greatest ever songs. Both Springsteen and Malick’s work depict the casual unspooling of horrors that Starkweather’s almost-comatose spree entailed; as the final line states, “They want to know why I did what I did / Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

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