by Steve Habrat
It is virtually impossible to shake Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film Badlands from your head once you have seen it. This arty crime thriller that is based off of the real-life 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate watches the horrific actions of these two young murderers with a frustrating and nonjudgmental gaze throughout the hour and a half this senseless rampage lasts. This is a gaze that turns your insides to stone and freezes you in place while you watch Malick soften the blows of the chilly violence with whimsical music and achingly beautiful images of nature being nature. To say that one becomes almost as detached as these two misfit killers continue their journey is an understatement. You will fail to be moved when Martin Sheen’s captivating Kit blasts one of his victims without a glimmer of remorse as the body falls to the ground. Welcome to Badlands, one of the most extraordinary debuts from a director you are ever likely to see and one you are surely never going to forget. Complimented by a marvelous voice over teen dream confession from Kit’s galpal and accomplice Holly, Badlands becomes the road trip from Hell as bodies senselessly pile up even though our two young lovers know that this wind-in-the-hair freedom cannot and will not last.
One day while walking home from work, young garbage collector Kit Carruthers (Played by Martin Sheen) notices dreamy redheaded teen Holly Sargis (Played by Sissy Spacek) twirling a baton in her front yard. The two really hit it off but Holly is reluctant to really get close to Kit because she fears that her father (Played by Warren Oats) will not allow her to go out with a garbage collector. Soon, things begin to go sour at work for the rebellious Kit and he decides that he is going to run off with Holly. After Holly’s father refuses to let Holly leave, Kit murders him and then burns the house down. The two disappear into the woods and they attempt to make a life for themselves but they are soon discovered and chased off by a trio of bounty hunters. As Kit and Holly begin making their way towards the Montana badlands, they leave a trail of random murders in their wake. As their journey continues, police and bounty hunters slowly close in on the duo but Kit has no intentions of going down without a fight.
Malick’s Badlands is relentlessly surreal and oftentimes strangely dethatched, seemingly off in its own little world, much like the two misfit fugitives at the heart of the film. As they flee from their dead-end small town and wander into the strange and unforgiving landscape, Malick’s camera comes to life and gazes longingly at this barren, almost alien land that is acting as the stage from Kit to lash out at anyone standing in his way. Malick never demands that we come to one definitive conclusion about these kids and he even makes Kit strangely charismatic despite his trigger-happy tendencies. He almost clings to some foreign string of innocence as southern drawl threats pour from his mouth almost like syrup. This is the most disturbing part of Badlands, the fact that we never truly loathe the monsters causing all this senseless chaos. They seem to enjoy the thrill of it all even though the fully understand that they are bound for chains and shackles at some point. At one point, Kit tells his buddy Cato (Played by Ramon Bieri) that they may make a try for Mexico but just by the tone in his voice, you get the impression that he doesn’t half believe that they will make it.
Then we have Spacek’s Holly, who speaks to us in a child-like confession, dejected but never truly alarmed by what she has seen and done. While Kit thinly conceals his doubt that they will stay out of the law’s clutches, Holly doesn’t hide it in her confessions. She is a typical teenager, one who lacks one specific direction and is still trying to get to know herself. She speaks of moving on after her run with Kit is over and finding another boy to settle down with, almost like this is just a backyard game of cat and mouse that will end when her father calls her in for dinner. At one point she hints that she knows she is Kit’s puppet, telling a young girl that “Kit says ‘frog’ and I say how high” just before Kit guns the girl down. The two watch these murders with a sense of awe, impressed that they are capable of taking lives without a nervous blink or a shoulder twitch. Holly almost seems fascinated by it, even when her own father meets one of Kit’s bullets and lies bleeding out on the floor. She is angry for only a moment, slapping Kit as tears well up in her eyes but this is only brief and it is all the creepier for it. Later on, Holly watches a man slowly die in front of her and she almost studies it, pouring over the fading light in the man’s eyes before his last breath exits his lungs.
As Badlands inches out of small town America and into the flat plains, the film takes on a western vibe with hints of a fairy tale whispered by a naive angel. These fairy tale hints also come from the chiming score from George Tipton, which enters the scenes low and adds an aura of whimsicality to the looming terror. While Badlands certainly frightens us with its insistent grit realism, it soothes us over with the beauty in between the fits of violence. The magnetic terror is abundant in the performances from Spacek and Sheen, two young talents who give the performance of their careers. Sheen is the one who earns the gold star for his chatty killer who sees himself as an adrift rebel with a soft spot for Nat ‘King’ Cole. Oats is also brilliant as Holly’s stern father who dares to stand up to Sheen’s rebellious greaser. The cinematography is to die for and the 50’s set design is fussy but never particularly overwhelming. Overall, Malick’s accessible but emotionally complicated vision of an America loosing its grip on innocence stands as an American classic. It is essential viewing for those who have a deep love of cinema and a film that elbows its way onto the list of most impactful films you are likely ever to see.
Badlands is available on DVD.