“He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. For a while they lived together in a tree house. In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people”. This was the tagline for ‘Badlands’ (1973) and it pretty much sums up the film. What it doesn’t do however is explain just how beautiful, romantic, violent and engrossing the film is.
We follow Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a young garbage collector and his girlfriend Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) as they go on the run after killing Holly’s father (Warren Oates). Kit is a morally ambiguous young man, self-centred and listless; he falls for Holly after seeing her twirl a baton in her front yard. Holly is shy and introverted; she falls for Kit almost immediately as we hear through her narration that he “looked just like James Dean”. As their relationship develops, her father disapproves and it is at this point that Kit casually shoots him. They burn down the house and go on the run…
The film plays out like a fairytale through the inner monologue from Holly that is a constant throughout. She describes in a childish manner what she is feeling and what she believes to be Kits reasons for his actions. This narration and the incredibly haunting score lift the film to another level. Without it we would become detached from Kit and Holly’s world as they are not the most interesting characters. Kit postures more as the film progresses, believing his motives for killing are justified and revelling in his new found fame. Holly remains detached throughout and although initially infatuated with Kit she soon becomes bored with him and the constant running. She is simply along for the ride.
Sheen and Spacek are perfect in their roles, entirely believable and have great screen chemistry. But this is director Terrence Malik’s film, andwhat a beautiful film he has made. The cinematography is gorgeous, with wide vistas of the mid-west and sunsets against distant stormy clouds a constant feature. The backdrops appear almost surreal with only Kit, Holly and whoever they come across in the shots, we rarely see anyone else and this helps establish how isolated they are both physically and as characters.
The killings are not overly bloody and in many cases happen off screen; thaey are played out as almost banal and sterile. They are not really important to Kit other than heightening his noteriety, they just happen and this reinforces that the violence isn’t the central theme of the movie, it’s not about the killings, it’s about the people doing the killings. There isn’t any justifiable reason for any of them except in Kit’s head. When Holly decides to leave Kit he realises that he is doomed and eventually gives up. Believing in his own fame, Kit even goes so far as to mark the exact spot he was captured. If the film had been made in the last decade the critics would call it a ‘critique of modern society’s obsession with fame’. This was made in 1973 and stands the test of time.
It was Terence Malik’s debut; it took him five years to make his follow up ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978) and he would not make another film until ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998). His last film was ‘The New World’ (2005). Not exactly prolific each of his films are worth waiting for, although The New World was somewhat of a disappointment after the high standard he set early on. Badlands was an incredible debut and I don’t think he’s done anything as good since, although not many directors started with the bar set so high.
Quality: 5 out of 5 stars
Any good: 5 out of 5 stars