Enigmatic American filmmaker Terrence Malick is a director preoccupied with the great outdoors. In some form or another, every film in his back catalogue has featured nature, and our relationship with it, as a key theme. Be this the war-torn forests of Guadalcanal where The Thin Red Line (1998) takes place, or the locust-ravaged Texas dustbowl in Days of Heaven (1978), Malick's filmography is perhaps one defined by his expressive use of planet earth as a backdrop for his melancholy tales.

As his career progressed, Malick moved into the city. Lush foliage and vast horizons were replaced by elaborate architecture and surgically precise cityscapes, and where earlier his style had been one inherently linked to a pastoral setting; it has now transitioned into something resembling modernism. His characters became increasingly bitter and driven by regret, and the brooding Los Angeles skyline complements perfectly the intense self-loathing of the protagonist in his latest meditation, Knight of Cups (2016).

Fig i: Badlands (1984) Dir - Terrence Malick


In this sense, Malick's use of nature with the intention of revealing sub-textual content has been consistent throughout his long, celebrated career, and though his films have become increasingly non-associative and rambling, the presence of 'the outdoors' is nonetheless a certainty.

In Malick's debut Badlands (1984) an idyllic, impossibly green, South Dakotan suburb gives way to the scorched earth of the Montana badlands, visually charting the psychological descent of fugitive lovers Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) into a lengthy killing spree. A striking introduction to a distinctive style, the film remains a perfect summation of Malick's attitudes regarding scenery and the possibilities of its use in the medium of cinema.

In the divisive The Tree of Life (2011) the scope of nature was intensely large, with the audience bearing witness to the creation of planets and cosmos shattering asteroid impacts, and I believe a lot of the criticism aimed at it was borne from a perceived lack of focus. In Badlands however, we see Malick at his most concentrated, occupied purely with nature as a reflexive device, as opposed to a component in a tear jerking montage designed to highlight humanity's insignificance.

Fig ii: Our first introduction to the characters at the film's beginning.


As the film proceeds and settings change, they do so in accordance with the character's emotions and ideas. Fig ii for example, taken from the very beginning of the film, shows to us a location full of life, hope, and innocence. Holly twirls a baton on the green grass of her lawn, and Kit approaches from left of the frame. It is no coincidence Kit is a bin man, his shirt streaked with black and drenched with sweat from a morning's work. Immediately Malick creates a sense of intrusion, with him the unclean, ragged figure against an immaculately maintained suburban paradise.

Holly's initial innocence is characterised through her surroundings. The brilliant white of her house and the emerald tones of her garden recurrently demonstrate the heavenly Eden that she inhabits, whilst Kit wanders the backstreets, kicking through garbage and waste. In plain terms, he is here to take her innocence, both figuratively and literally.

When these two worlds inevitably collide, with Holly's father demanding that she stop seeing him, all hell breaks loose. Kit takes his first life and burns Holly's house down (fig iii, iv) with her father still inside. Malick's sustained visual focus on the burning of the house delivers a powerful, lasting image portraying the demise of innocence, and the numerous shots we see of burning beds and dolls reinforce the idea of a no-turning-back-now change in this young girl's life.

Fig iii: Holly's house burning down


Fig iv: Holly's bed, a symbol of her childhood, burns along with the last remaining tie to her innocence


So, for a period, the two are free, and Holly, through lyrical voiceover, ruminates on her new life. She and Kit live off the land, setting traps for food and designing a surprisingly elaborate tree house, complete with a working pulley system, to live in. Their setting is more wild and unkempt than the suburb, reflecting their current nomadic state, and where there were once neatly trimmed lawns there are now fields with neck high grass, and rivers where there were roads.

Malick here tells us explicitly the state of mind his characters occupy through the use of nature, a perfect mirror to their souls, hopes, and dreams.

Fig v: Kit's signature shot - distance between him and the viewer as he stares out into the wilderness


In fig v above, we see a shot that is used numerous times when Kit appears onscreen. This is, his figure, cutting a slender shape against the horizon, often alone and dominated by the landscape. It is used in the first act, before he burns down the house, and again when they live in the forest, and once more when they reach an isolated farm, where Kit kills again.

As the pair become more enamoured and co-dependent, Holly sometimes appears in these shots alongside him, generating the idea that he is drawing her into his philosophy. As time goes by, these shots become more frequent, with Holly eventually becoming a staple feature in these expansive frames, almost as if the pair is trying to distance themselves from the viewer's gaze (fig vi and vii).

Fig vi: Holly often appears more distant than Kit in these shots


Fig vii: Kit and Holly run from the camera


As the pair venture ever deeper into the depths of murder and forbidden love, the landscape around them degrades, transforming from what was previously luscious fields into barren, lifeless plains. It is here where their love is tested, where Holly begins to doubt their actions, and where Kit is exposed to the true nature of his own psyche.

When the landscape is taken to its most extreme point, and its deathly connotations become overwhelming, Kit once again takes to his signature frame alone (fig viii) gazing into a colossal, surreal night with the abyss staring straight back. We could interpret this as perhaps his true character, complete with weapon of choice slung over his shoulder, experiencing a damning personal epiphany or, alternatively, simply a man accepting his own inevitable doom.

Fig viii: Kit stares into the warped colours of the golden hour


In Badlands then, and beyond, Malick has dealt in the vast expanse of the great outdoors in order to highlight dimensions of his characters that would possibly have remained invisible, had they holed up in a barn or chosen to stay indoors. We see the landscape mutate around the pair as they discover things about life and each other, and even themselves in Holly's case.

There are few more effective ways to develop a character than through their surroundings, and in the context of Malick's unique style this is undeniably true. The journey of Holly and Kit through a turbulent, hellish form of love directly influences the world around them, so significant is it, that it can mould the earth to their liking. So when Kit is arrested, taken by the police to the airport, and the lovers share a final moment above the clouds, the camera gazes out onto the world below them (fig ix), one that they together were able to bend to their will.

Fig ix