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Badlands and Worselands.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 29, 1998:  They meet somewhere, preferably somewhere smalltime and sleazy—a bar, a garage, a nightclub. They're young and they fall in love. They're usually a boy and a girl, although not always in these days of diversity cinema. They're bored with life, misunderstood by the world, rootless and alienated. They commit a crime, steal a car, and go on the road.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. The young-lovers-on-the-lam movie is its own mini-genre these days; it's hard to find a budding star or starlet who hasn't made at least one such foray (Juliette Lewis has made a whole career of them). What it says about modern culture, especially modern youth culture, is open to egghead deconstruction. What's less debatable is that the scenario is getting tired. When the first gas station robbery or carjacking goes awry, we know we've seen it all before.

That's why Kiss or Kill (1997, R) is refreshing. The Australian thriller doesn't so much reinvent the genre as rejuvenate it. Whenever things start to look familiar, they turn out differently than you expect. It's about Al and Nikki (Matt Day and the very good Frances O'Connor), a pair of young con artists who kill someone accidentally (maybe) and hightail it into the Aussie wilderness, meeting assorted oddballs, some of whom end up mysteriously dead. The film creates great tension between the two leads as they start to suspect each other of hidden psychosis. It's also rife with stark, expressionistic landscapes (a staple of these films) and sharp humor.

Like all of its ilk, Kiss or Kill owes a lot to Terence Malick's astonishing Badlands (1974, PG), a fictionalized account of the Charles Starkweather serial killings. Martin Sheen is mesmerizing as a young drifter who picks up spooky Sissy Spacek and sets off on a random murder spree. The film is poetic and frightening—the Midwest has rarely looked so lovely or so haunted. Most affecting—and affectless—are the zombie American dreamers at its center, blank perversions of innocence and youth.

It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Badlands, which has inspired everything from Bruce Springsteen's best album (Nebraska) to Oliver Stone's most inexcusable movie (Natural Born Killers). One of my favorites of its progeny is David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1987, R), a movie some people disliked as much as I disliked Stone's film. Lynch's outlaw saga is offensive in places and self-indulgent in others, but it's also full of startling ideas. It's kind of a pop-culture Rorschach test, a crazy stew of jokes and nightmares that seems hardwired into some mass (and very American) sub-conscious. In a way, it's a perfect metaphor for the whole genre—fast cars, young corpses, and darkness on the highway.


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