Jack Fisk and Badlands: A Review
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of watching ‘Badlands’ (1973) for the first time and was struck by the film’s subtle yet precise aesthetic achieved through the strong collaboration between Terrance Mallick and Production Designer Jack Fisk.
‘Badlands’ was Mallick’s first feature and his first collaboration with Fisk. The film is loosely based around the murderous spree of Charles Starkweather and his 14 year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate across the Dakota badlands in 1958 and follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) as they run from the law after killing Holly’s father.
What struck me most about this film is the way the visuals and overall aesthetic perfectly interact with the narrative, simultaneously supporting the story while providing a striking juxtaposition when necessary. For this, Fisk really has to be commended.
The South-Dakota landscape was obviously a huge influence, with the colour palette of warm browns and reds, dusty blues and smatterings of green lifted straight from it. I usually find strict colour palettes overpowering and distracting but in this case, the correlation between palette and the landscape makes the interiors feel like extension of the exteriors. This not only brings the alienation of the Dakota badlands into all aspects of the film but creates an overriding visual harmony.
The only exception to this colour palette is the rich man’s house, which is characterised by opulent cream marble and warm woody tones, creating a feeling of stability and history that is at odds with the other sets in the film, such as the tree fortress and Cati’s shack, which are more temporary and feel as if they could be taken back by nature at any time. Interestingly, this posh home is where Kit seems most at home; he explores, makes himself comfortable while recording his personal opinions on the rich man’s dictaphone and lets the man and his maid live. This seems to point at some sort respect Kit has for the rich man and his lifestyle.
But I think the greatest triumph of this film is the set dressing. The level of detail is phenomenal while still remaining minimal and does so much to inform us about the characters and their world. As Fisk states, ‘some of it came about because we never had any money, so we always had minimal set dressing and props, and we found out that we really like the way that looked. Even today, I spend most of my time taking stuff away rather than putting stuff onto a set’.
But the dressing and props Fisk does include speak volumes. For example, the pastel green mix-master, lamp and other kitchen decor in Holly’s home tell of the lingering feminine influence of an absent (presumably dead) mother and gives us clues as to why Holly is so desperate for Kit’s love. This lamp is seen again in the tree-house Kit and Holly build in the woods, which is furnished and decorated with other objects, including a large painting, bird-cage and record player, stolen from Holly’s father’s house before Kit set it alight. These attempts at domestic beautification are childish and make Holly and Kit seem like two kids ‘playing house’.
So much of the film is about playing at adulthood; the way the couple play make-believe in their forest fortress, how Holly secretly makes-up her face like a young girl playing with her mother’s make-up, Kit’s obsession with James Dean and his grand yet simplistic ideals, like shooting the football in the middle of the South Dakota planes because it had become ‘excess baggage’
There’s a sense that neither of the characters are fully aware of what they are doing or what life has in store for them at the end of their journey. Throughout the film, we’re giving a glimps into Holly’s consciousness through her narration, which is tantalising descriptive while managing to reveal little. As Sissy Spacek said in an interview, ‘the narration is what gets Holly off the hook’. She’s so detached and often childishly matter-of-fact that when you listen to her, you understand that she’s and, to a lesser extent, Kit, are just kids and haven’t grasped the berevity of the situation.
I think it’s also important to note that while the film depicts murder and violence, the design generally reflects the peaceful isolation of the Dakota landscape rather than the violent imagery. I found that this contrast further cemented the characters’ lack of understanding; they aren’t haunted by their actions and indeed, don’t even really seem to think about what they have done. Instead, they have willful adolescent ignorance and live for each other and an undefined, impossible future.
While the film is set in the 1950s, it isn’t overrun with period details and feels almost as if it could be set in any old-fashioned, out-dated American town at any time. For Malick, this was a conscious decision as he felt nostalgia is too powerful a feeling, ‘it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time.’. For Fisk, this timelessness was also expressed in the overriding simplicity throughout the film’s design in order to avoid confusion because, as he states, ‘if people aren’t confused by the background, they pay attention to what’s happening with the characters, I think. I try to create backgrounds that are easy to understand so they tell you in shorthand what you need to know about the place or the character and don’t distract you by giving you too much to look at. [The balance between simplicity and authenticity] is a hard one.’
It’s amazing to think that this film was Malick’s first and made on $355,00 he raised himself. The collaboration and artfulness that he and Fisk managed to create is staggering and results in an extremely visually cohesive film that is an utter pleasure to watch.