Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff), John Carter (Rich Man).
In broad strokes, Badlands resembles any number of “lovers on the run” films – from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and many other films before and since. It tells the story of a young couple, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) who go on the run after he kills her father and end up on a doomed cross country killing spree. That sounds like a setup for an exciting, frantically paced movie about romantic outsiders – two people united against the world. But this being a Malick film, of course it’s different. It’s different in that Malick’s film is more deliberately paced – more lyrical and beautiful. Like all of his films, it is about people who look at their place in the larger world and struggle to find meaning in their small lives. The violence in the movie isn’t exciting – but it isn’t especially brutal or bloody either. But perhaps the biggest way Badlands doesn’t resemble most “young people in love on a crime spree” movie is simple – I don’t think Kit and Holly really love each other. At times, they barely seem to like to each other.
Like all Malick films, the narration in the movie is pervasive. The narration here is delivered by Spacek’s Holly in an almost flat monotone voice – that betrays little to no emotion. Her narration most often seems at odds with the visuals of Malick’s movie – she sees the events as a fairy tale, and doesn’t like to dwell on the unseemly details. The murders throughout the movie don’t have much of an effect on her. She’s lost in her own teenage girl world – wondering about her place in the world, wondering about her “boyfriend” Kit – and what will happen to them. Halfway through the movie she makes a promise to herself in the narration – that she’ll never again get involved with someone outside the law like Kit again. But she doesn’t leave him – not then anyway. She’s bored by everything – and that includes Kit – but what would happen if she left?
Kit takes Holly along, I think, because he needs someone to see what he is doing. He is a violent man, who sees himself a victim of society (he complains that “they’ll probably blame me for that too” about a trivial thing, as if blaming him for the murders he has committed is somehow unjust). He wants desperately to be valued, loved – or at the very least have his existence acknowledged. Late in the film, after Holly has left him, he unpacks her suitcase, and throws all her things away – keeping only her journal – which he reads. He wants to see if there is at least one person in the world who “gets” him. I doubt he was happy with what he read. Kit’s problem, one of them anyway, is that he isn’t as deep as he thinks he is. People compare to James Dean throughout the movie – and it’s an apt comparison, as Martin Sheen looks enough like Dean to pass, and seems to be channeling him at times – but Kit is not the deep, suffering outsider Dean played in East of Eden. He’s an empty sociopath who wants to believe he means more than he does. He wants to leave his mark on the world – and when you don’t have the brains or talent to do it in any other way, the easiest way to do that is with a gun. He doesn’t feel anything when he kills his victims – and he doesn’t go out in a romantic blaze of glory. Why would he? He enjoys the attention he receives after his arrest far too much to give it up. For once, people are listening to him – taking him seriously. He has, in essence, gotten exactly what he wanted.
Sheen’s performance is probably the best of his career – and one of the best of all time really. As I mentioned before, he seems to be channeling James Dean – which the real life inspiration from Kit, Charles Starkweather did as well. That’s how Kit sees himself – and wants the world to see him as well. But Sheen doesn’t make Kit into a romantic character – yes, he and Holly romanticize themselves, but the movie never does – but instead sees him as a rather pathetic person – trying desperately to find some meaning in his meaningless life. Malick doesn’t so much hate Kit as pity him. He could have made Kit a more despicable person - the real Starkweather killed a 2 year old after all – but including such an incident would let the audience off the hook easier. You don’t have to feel anything – not even pity – for someone that despicable.
In many ways, Badlands is the most straight forward film of Malick’s career – it certainly has a more straight forward narrative than anything else he has done. But the film is still very much a Malick film – the visuals have the painterly quality of all of his film. But Malick sees the Midwest where the pair drive through as both beautiful and empty – which is a description that could apply to the characters as well. In many ways, while Badlands is not the best film Malick has made, it is his most influential. You can see echoes of it in recent films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Sun Don’t Shine. Watching it this time however, I was drawn to thinking about Gus Van Sant’s so called “Death Trilogy” of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days – not because of the imagery – Van Sant’s films don’t look at all like Malick’s – but because of their ultimate meaning. Van Sant made three films about young men who kill – the first, about a man who kills his friend, the second about a pair of school shooters, and the third about a rock star who commits suicide – but ultimately finds no meaning in their actions. Malick finds the same meaninglessness in Badlands. In that way, Badlands almost acts as a corrective of a film like Bonnie & Clyde, which saw its young lovers as romantic figures of youthful rebellion. They may pay for their sins, but you walk out of the movie loving them just the same. You don’t walk out of Badlands loving Kit and Holly. You walk out pitying them.