No Future : Nihilism in Badlands and Kids.
Although the movies Badlands and Kids appear at first glance to be birds of a different feather, at their heart they have a common theme which – paradoxically — can be summed up as ‘nothing’. Each film explores youth alienation and what happens when segments of society do not buy into the social consensus. In other words, what value do people place on society when society places no value on them?
The most striking difference between the two movies is aesthetic. Whereas Badlands finds a languid beauty in the nihilism of its characters, Kids presents an ugly mess that has few if any redeeming features. The first is somewhat reminiscent of Ragnarok – a creeping, inexorable entropy. Kids, on the other hand, resembles a minor apocalypse.
Stylistically, the two films could not be further apart. The look and feel of Badlands puts one in mind of any number of westerns as well as films such as Bonny andClyde (USA, 1967) and Thelma & Louise (USA, 1991). It is essentially a road movie without the usual upbeat – and possibly misplaced – optimism we associate with the genre. It’s as if someone has taken Easy Rider (USA, 1969) and stripped it of its guts, reduced it to a well-nigh meaningless sequence of events.
The story is told from the point of view of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15 year old girl, whose main characteristic is passivity. She and her boyfriend, Kit (Martin Sheen), embark on a killing spree – or rather Kit does. Holly just seems to be along for the ride. Kit’s explanations for his murderous acts are weak and half-hearted. He probably doesn’t even believe them himself, nor does he need to. Witness, for instance, his rationale for shooting some bounty hunters in the back as recounted by Holly :
… he’d overheard them whispering about how they were only interested in the reward money. With lawmen it would’ve been different. They were out there to get a job done and they deserved a fair chance. But not a bounty hunter.
And later when he guns down his best friend Cato (Ramon Bieri) in cold blood :
Kit never let on why he’d shot Cato. He said that just talking about it could bring us bad luck and that right now we need all the luck we could get.
Clearly Kit is no great shakes as a moral philosopher.
In the end we are left unable to sympathise with either Holly or Kit. The director, it must be supposed, is happy with this state of affairs. At the heart of his movie lies a great, empty expanse that reflects both the Badlands of the title and the lives of his protagonists.
As we journey through the wilderness with Kit and Holly, we stumble upon few insights. The only lesson to be learnt is that people sometimes do bad things because they’ve got nothing else to do. Or – to put it succinctly – shit happens.
This same ethos lies at the core of Kids. In this film, almost nobody looks to the future except in the most superficial way. The only character to give much thought to what lies ahead is Jennie (Chloe Sevigny). The irony here being that she may literally have no future because – after her one and only sexual experience – she has tested HIV positive. Unlike the other protagonists in both films, her destiny truly is beyond her control.
The story of Badlands (based loosely on real events) centres around two young people who have nothing in their lives. The desert they travel through in an effort to evade capture is the desert they were born into. Whichever way they look, the landscape is dull and unchanging. They occasionally glimpse something more – the lights of a city, the mountains of Montana – but these things are alien to them and they know in their hearts they will never escape the Badlands.
Similarly, the youngsters in Kids seem resigned to their lot. The difference being that they don’t seem to know what their lot is. It’s as if they are in their own Badlands but are so dwarfed by their environment they have no sense of where or who they are. Whereas Holly and Kit embrace their catastrophe, the kids are engulfed by theirs.
Towards the end of Kids, Jenny is in a taxi looking for the boy that infected her. She quietly promises herself, ‘I’m not gonna die’. It is the one life-affirming line in the entire film.
So here we have two films that share little in common but their theme — kids with no future. It is the manner in which they handle their subject matter that makes Badlands and Kids as diametrically opposed as any two films can be.