In the 1950s, a teenage girl becomes romantically involved with an older greaser. When her father finds out and forbids them to see each other again, they kill her father, and then flee across the country, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.
Wow. For Terrence Malick to start his career like this is absolutely incredible. This movie is considerably faster paced than some of his later, more philosophical/existential entries. There are still things in this movie that hint at what’s to come from Malick; his use of voiceovers while long takes of nature or characters lounging are shown on screen, the slightly disjointed editing, the laconic characters. His cinematography, even in his debut film, is unmatched by many in the 1970s. But what really makes this movie so special is it’s naïve perspective towards the events that are transpiring. Though the crimes are vicious and brutal, we see everything through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek, “Carrie”), and that gives the film and the events a sort of dreamlike quality. Kit (Martin Sheen, “Apocalypse Now”) looked like James Dean, and for Holly, that was all she really needed, but then the dream swiftly turns into a nightmare, and Holly doesn’t know how to get out of the situation. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking story; it’s a look at first loves, loss of innocence, and it’s also a great character study of a psychopath.
Beauty and the Beast
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are both remarkable in their rolls. From the first time we see Sheen, we get the sense that he’s not quite right, but there is a certain alluring charm to him as well. Kit is a garbage man, and he’s ten years older than Holly, so it’s easy to see why Holly’s father would not approve. It’s also easy to see, at first, why Holly would be drawn to such a man. Martin plays Kit with a sort of cool intensity; multiple times throughout this movie, people reference the fact that Kit looks like James Dean, and he certainly does. Not only that, but he carries himself with a cocksure swagger, even just after he’s murdered Holly’s father. Kit knows that Holly is in love with him, and even after that love becomes hostile, he knows it’ll be hard for her to leave him.
Sissy Spacek is also quite incredible in this. Most of the film is shown from Holly’s perspective, and all of the voiceovers give us deeper insight into what she’s thinking. At the beginning, Sissy plays Holly as shy and vulnerable; she seems at ease around Kit, but she never really seems to know what she wants. There are plenty of great scenes when we’re watching something quite beautiful unfold on screen, but the voiceovers give us insight into what Holly is actually thinking. She plays the roll with a certain naivety that makes it easy to sympathize with her character even though she’s an accomplice to so many horrible murders.
Lyrical and Poetic
Many times, I feel like voiceovers can be crutches to storytelling; they’re primarily cheap ways to catch the audience up on exposition or backstory. But not so with Malick; he has a way of using voiceovers to really elevate the story. The voiceovers, more than anything, feel very literate. It feels like were watching a novel unfold before our eyes, and the voiceovers only draw us in more. There’s a wonderful disconnect between what’s happening on screen and what is being said in the voiceovers. One of my favorites examples is when we see long shots of Kit and Holly together at their tree house. Kit seems to be relatively happy with where they are, and Holly smiles along with him, but in her mind we hear her thinking about the man that she’ll someday marry. Even while she’s with Kit, even when, by all appearances they seem happy, she knows that this romance will not end well, and she’s prepping herself for the worst to come.
The cinematography in this film is magnificent, as it is in almost all Malick movies. It adds another layer to the dreamlike ethereal feel of the whole film. Things move slowly; it’s not concerned with how quickly you think things should move. Sometimes we focus on Kit reading in a tree; sometimes we just watch animals wandering about, showing nature's ambiguity towards the whole event. It makes the film feel unconventional and heavenly. It’s almost as if we’re being told this story by Holly as she remembers it years in the future; sure, she has regrets about what happened, but she can’t help longing for a time when there was a man who loved her so deeply that he had no qualms killing multiple people to be with her.
Starkweather and Fugate
This film is based on a true story, and having read a little bit about the backstory, I was surprised at how accurate most of the details were- I suppose some spoilers will be in this paragraph as well. Some of the details were embellished upon, of course; this is a movie. For example the age difference wasn’t as large. Charles Starkweather was eighteen when he first met Caril Ann Fugate, and she was only thirteen. However, Starkweather was far more brutal than the film let on. In “Badlands”, Kit kills Holly’s father (Warren Oates, “In the Heat of the Night”) and then Kit and Holly take off. In reality, Starkweather killed Caril’s mother and father with a shotgun, and then strangled and stabbed their two-year-old daughter and Caril’s younger sister, Betty Jean. Much of the actual details along the way were contested; Fugate said one thing while Starkweather said another. Starkweather (Kit) was of course apprehended and sentenced to death, as the film depicts. Caril (Holly) in the film was given probation, but in reality she was sentenced to life in prison, but served only seventeen years. She is currently still alive; actually, she turns seventy-five today, the day this article was originally published (7/30/2018). Starkweather and Fugate’s killing spree has been the inspiration for many films and television portrayals, but “Badlands” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” are probably the most well known.
This movie is a majestic work of art. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and disturbing; romantic and heartbreaking; beautiful and tragic. It’s hard to believe Malick started with something like; a story so simple yet compelling. His later work is still as compelling, but it’s far more artistic. This is probably the most accessible Malick film I’ve seen. If you’re looking for somewhere to start with this director, start with his debut. “Badlands” is a journey you won’t easily forget, nor will you want to.
Review Written By: