In his forty-year career, Terrence Malick has stood as one of cinema’s bravest, boldest directors. The filmmaker often approaches his subjects with such a poetic manner that his movies communicate and speak to me in such a way few films can. Malick’s serene imagery has defined all of his movies, and his most recent movies strongly exemplify this trait. The director’s debut, Badlands, may not be as ambiguous as The Tree of Life or To The Wonder, but it’s one of Malick’s finest efforts and a pivotal moment in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.
Badlands is inspired by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who went on a killing spree in 1958 with eleven victims, including Caril’s father. The film revolves around two characters. Kit (Martin Sheen) is based on Charles Starkweather. He is twenty-five years old, collects the garbage for work, and wears a James Dean-like outfit, symbolizing his rebellion spirit. Holly (Sissy Spacek) takes Caril’s place. She’s only fifteen, a lonely freckled schoolgirl who also narrates the story.
The two first meet out on the street while Holly is twirling a baton. Kit approaches her and talks to her a bit, telling her he just left his job as a garbage man. Holly looks at him and falls in love with him and soon the two embark on a romance.
The love between a twenty-five year old and a schoolgirl may be a bit disturbing but Malick assures the audience that this relationship is not sexual. Rather, he connects how these two different characters are much alike. Their shunned by society, and don’t know how to react.
Within the first twenty minutes, Kit shoots Holly’s father (played by Warren Oates), an action that has severe repercussions that reverberate throughout the rest of the film. Kit burns down Holly’s house and soon the two run away into the woods, hoping to disappear and find a new life. But as more and more people run into their way, the bodies start piling up, which threatens the relationship between Holly and Kit.
Badlands has a similar story to Bonnie and Clyde, another pivotal film in the New Hollywood age. But Bonnie and Clyde focused on the two eponymous characters’ crimes and the outside world’s reaction to them. While Badlands shows some indication of the pedestrian perspective, particularly at the end, it really is about how Kit and Holly react to their victims. Malick takes a unique perspective and portrays the duo as a lost, innocent couple who seem ignorant of the world around them. In the pivotal scene where Kit shoots Holly’s father, Holly really doesn’t know what to do afterwards. She slaps Kit out of anger but still follows him like a blind puppy, as she does throughout the rest of the film. Kit, on the other hand, possesses little awareness on the vileness of his crimes. He does not seem pleased or angry about his killings, but sees it as a needed action. After shooting a few men who were following him and Holly into the woods, he argues, “I killed them because they was bounty hunters who wanted the reward money. If they was policemen, just being paid for doing their job, that would have been different.” Kit’s lack of remorse of his victims defines the detached attitude of the film. Like Bonny and Clyde, Holly and Kit are lost, rejected souls, but unlike the two, Holly and Kit don’t seem to have an urge to rejoin society. And while Bonny and Clyde is a great movie, I would argue that Badlands is a stronger, more confident film.
While Badlands is a narrative based film and not quite as surreal as Malick’s other pictures, it sets up many common and recurring traits that have defined the director’s style. Malick’s love of nature is evident here, as he presents clear, pristine, and beautiful images, be they bugs climbing through leaves or flowers bustling through the wind. He also utilizes voiceover to describe Holly’s inner emotions and thoughts, which become more direct into introducing plot elements than what his later films do. With many of the Malickian elements toned down, Badlands may be the director’s most accessible piece.
While my favorite Malick movie is The Tree of Life, Badlands is certainly a highlight in the director’s filmography. Coincidently, the film debuted in the New York Film Festival in 1973, which also met another breakthrough of one of film’s best directors: Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. While both movies share different stories, both show two great filmmakers providing viewpoints on American society.
Editor’s Note: The Debut blogathon gave me a good excuse to buy the new Criterion blu-ray of Badlands, which was approved by Malick himself. The restoration is top-notch and the disc is loaded with some great extra features, including a documentary about the making of the film. It is well worth the price and one of the best Criterion sets I own.