Article by Ryan Wilson

For better or worse, the most talked about movie of the season happens to be the aptly name Spring Breakers. Where to begin? The obvious point would be to question the exploitative premise of the film: that four college girls on spring break get a little beyond “gone wild.” They become psychotic bikini-clad criminals. Add to the violence the casting, which includes not-so-former teen idols straight from the Disney laboratory, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, playing these Barbie-sized outlaws. It’s exactly the sort of perfect chemistry that makes anyone under the age of twenty-five flock to the spectacle and makes any parent with tweens want to picket the theater.

Every so often a film like this comes along, shaking us just to shake. And while we don’t have to approve, we should study it because these “kids gone gonzo” films reflect more than just their violence. Like most anti-hero tales, they’re really broad cultural statements about our phobias. And what’s more troubling and terrifying than our youth turning into soulless machines capable of terrible acts? We can probably trace it back to Marlon Brando’s famous line in 1954’s The Wild One. When casually asked what he’s rebelling against, he coolly replies “Whaddya Got?” How can we not be cinematically drawn to the mystery behind that answer? How can we not follow such an empty vessel, wondering why he acts as he does?

What a coincidence then that the very month Spring Breakers arrives in theaters, the granddaddy of teen outlaw films arrives on Blue-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection. Trust me, you can go ahead and skip Spring Breakers. Just watch 1973’s Badlands instead.

Directed by Terrence Malick, the film follows the elusive bond between 15-yea-old Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, and her slightly older boyfriend Kit, played by Martin Sheen. Both of them have a fascinating hollowness about them. They don’t consciously react to the world around them so much as sleepwalk through what turns into a killing spree. When Holly’s father forbids the relationship, Kit blows him away, which is in itself no great surprise. The surprise is Holly’s lack of emotion and her devotion to Kit after the horrible act. Throughout the film, her voice-over doesn’t justify his murders but puts them in a dreamscape context not unlike a romance novel.

Badlands was Malick’s first film, based on true events from the 1950s and on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, which empathized with its criminals. Yet Malick doesn’t empathize. His treatment of the teen killers is distant and philosophical. Like most of his films, Malick’s true subject in Badlands is human impulse and our senseless choices. As they flee into the wide open spaces of the title, Kit and Holly are small, almost miniscule, set adrift in a natural world so vast that they’re consumed by the space.

Badlands’ influence is enormous, and not just in cinema. Bruce Springsteen was so struck by the stark quality of the film that it influenced his 1980 masterpiece Nebraska, arguably the most cinematic album of all time. Indeed one of Springsteen’s chilling lyrics almost comes from Kit himself: “At least for a little while, sir, me and her, we had us some fun.” Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the film in his screenplays for 1992’s True Romance and 1994’s Natural Born Killers, the latter of which emphasized our media infatuation with senseless killings, albeit with a heavy hand from director Oliver Stone. 

Spring Breakers is just another testament to how heavy-handed this tale has become, with the focus on James Franco’s corn-rolled gangsta called Alien, who further seduces the Barbies. I suppose Franco’s appearance reflects the sort of culture we’re in these days, but mainly I think he’s just there to creep us out, much the same way Woody Harrelson did sporting his skin-head look in Natural Born Killers. But the costuming gets in the way of the point, which is why Badlands holds-up so well. Rather than pushing us away, we’re drawn to Martin Sheen’s chiseled looks, referenced throughout as resembling James Dean. 

Spring Breakers may shock us for a month or more, but Malick’s masterpiece will endure, perhaps as long as its majestic foreground. The teenaged terror it evokes will never feel dated.  

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2013