Badlands (1973), directed by Terrence Malick and starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, is a movie about loyalty, love, and the desire to be important.
When I watched Badlands for the first time, my fascination with cinema had yet to begin; Badlands was my first Malick movie--and the first time that my naivety of movies would shift into a curiosity, and eventually a love for cinema. Essentially, I was new to the field of cinema and to the work of Malick. This combination of factors led to a very narrow view of what film as a medium could be--something that Badlands at the time did not fit into. I didn’t understand why master musician Bruce Springsteen would dedicate the lyrics of the title song of arguably his best album, Nebraska, to it. As my pallet became more refined by viewing more and more foreign and independent films, the thought of Malik’s 1970s classic never left my mind. Memories of droning long shots displaying the beauty of America’s rural landscape, Sissy Spacek’s controlled, but nonetheless immaculate acting, and the thrill of young love never stopped drawing me back to the movie. Because of this, I sat down and rewatched Badlands again. On second viewing I realized two things: one, what a masterpiece the movie really was, and two, how ignorant I had been for overlooking and not fully understanding it. In this article I will include a synopsis, pseudo review, and analysis of Badlands, providing not only my personal interpretations of its deep subtext, but the praise I believe the movie deserves.
WARNING...This article contains SPOILERS! However, in this movie the delivery of the story is of greater importance than the ending.
SYNOPSIS: The story of Badlands is simple in concept. It begins in the small town of Fort Dupree, South Dakota where Kit (Martin Sheen), a young man no older than 23, works as a trash collector. Before long he meets a 15-year-old girl named Holly (Sissy Spacek) and falls in love. Holly is worried that she will not get to see Kit because her dad will not approve of his trash-related profession (an obvious on the nose metaphor), but soon enough they spend every minute they can together. Holly’s dad eventually finds out about their forbidden love and and the two run off together across the country. For a while, they try to live in the forest but get found by bounty hunters. Kit manages to kill off the bounty hunters and once again, they flee. At this point, the couple has become a local legend, akin to classic criminal love birds like Bonnie and Clyde. Along their way, Kit kills many more people and seemingly enjoys it. Throughout the banishes Holly from ever meeting with Kit again. In an act of rebellion, Kit murders Holly’s dad fiasco, Holly never kills anyone, but goes along with Kit without ever saying a word. Eventually, they end up in the Great Plains, siphoning gas and driving in a random direction every day--both knowing their murder spree is coming to an end. One day they decide to stop at a small outpost to siphon some more gas, but get cut off by the police. They have a chance to make a break for it, but Holly refuses to go. She simply says, “I don’t want to,” and that is it. Kit leaves her and enters a chase with the police. Eventually, he loses his tail, providing him yet again a chance to run away. Strangely enough, Kit pulls himself over, pops his own tire and gets arrested. When the officers take him back to base we see that Kit has become a legend and everyone knows his name. As he empties out the contents of his pockets, the officers view Kit much like loyal fans would view a celebrity. At the end of the movie, Kit gets sentenced to death and Holly gets off with nothing but a slap on the wrist.
I think one of the reasons I initially disliked Badlands was because of how inconsequential the murder of every character felt. I thought that Holly’s acting was bad for not reacting with any sadness in the face of all the murders, especially her father’s. After seeing the film again, I now realize that every one of these aspects is not only intentional, but for the betterment of the film. The most important takeaway is that Badlands is not a film about a murder spree, but a movie about a relationship. These characters could have been put into any situation in which they are on the run and have the movie turn out the same way. The part that truly defines the movie is the chemistry between Kit and Holly. When Kit first meets Holly she is in her front yard playing, when he first offers her a cigarette she declines, and when he first asks her if she has ever been in love she says no. All these things are symbolic of youth and innocence. But as their relationship progresses, she is no longer playing, she smokes in nearly every scene, and she falls deeply in love with Kit. Her innocence is lost and when it comes time for her to rebel against her father, he is killed by Kit. Why is she not upset by this murder? Because when push comes to shove, Holly is a psychopath.
On first viewing it may seem like Holly is not as bad as Kit, especially as she narrates the story. But upon closer inspection and throughout the entire film she is just as evil as Kit, if not more. Not only does she goes along with every terrible decision Kit makes, but when she decides she is bored with the chase, she just leaves Kit with nothing but a slap on the wrist from authorities. Through Holly’s own narration, we know that she was, in love with Kit at first. But after the killing starts, her love for him dissipates. The reason she decides to stick around goes no deeper than... it’s more interesting than not going with him. Holly does not care who lives or dies. In the end she simply wants to be entertained. Kit, on the other hand, has a completely separate set of motivations. He starts in Fort Dupree as a trash collector without a high school degree who gets fired from his lowly job. All Kit wants is to be somebody better than who he is,to be a household name. This is why he won’t wear perfectly good used boots that were left on the side of the road, and why, when the killing spree starts, he insists on dressing fancy with a nice suit and hat. The problem is, he has no clue how to achieve these goals. Despite not coming to him naturally, Kit eventually finds his fame and recognition in the horrible crimes he commits. After he first kills Holly’s father, he had no intention of letting anyone know he is still alive. He records a message saying that he and Holly have killed themselves and burns down Holly’s house. They hide by living out in the forest, sleeping in a tree fort, and eating caught fish. This organic lifestyle changes quickly with the arrival of three bounty hunters. Kit shoots and kills the first two. Then, as the third bounty hunter gives up fighting and runs away, Kit shoots him in the back. At this moment, Kit has two fundamental realizations: Firstly, he comes to understand that he both enjoys, and is good at, killing. Secondly, the fact that three bounty hunters were sent after Holly and him, tells Kit that their crimes are truly a big deal. Kit now knows that his newfound passion of killing is the source fame that he so desperately sought, and he decides to capitalize on it.
Because the film is narrated by Holly, we never truly have a full understanding of Kits feeling towards her. Holly says herself that he “could have any [prettier] woman in town if he tried for a second” so why does he choose her? At first, his motive is unclear. But when the killing starts, we realize that Kit uses Holly as justification for his killing. Holly is what makes him noble, what makes the police officers at the end idolize him. Would the police crowd around a drug addict who killed 10 innocent people like he was Elvis Presley? No, of course not. They end up doing this to Kit because he killed to protect his partner, to save her from the tyranny of her evil father. Maybe Kit truly loves Holly, or maybe Kit is using her to not feel bad about his heinous crimes. Whatever the case, he needs her, she becomes an essential part of his plan. This leads us to the end of the movie when she leaves. After Holly nonchalantly declares her refusal to continue, Kit no longer has a driving force and, more importantly, no longer has a justifiable reason to commit his crimes. So, when pursued by the police, he pops his own tire and surrenders. Despite being captured and sentenced to death, Kit’s short life of infamy is far more important to him than a long life of trash collecting. The relationship between Kit and Holly is a truly toxic one. Holly sticks with Kit because Kit and his killing serve as entertainment in an otherwise boring life and Kit needs Holly because without her, his killing is seen as barbaric.
If you simply read the script of Badlands you may look at me like I’m crazy. You would say, “No way could you have gotten all of this from the script!” And you would be right, because the dialogue that is actually written on paper is mild and dry to match the disconnected and uncaring temperment of the characters. 90% of the subtext of Badlands is delivered through the acting done by both Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, and the world-class cinematography of Terrence Malick. Throughout the movie both actors, but especially Spacek, deliver consistently dry and realistic dialogue. If the movie were left only this dry dialogue, I doubt it would have been even close to the masterpiece that it is. Thankfully, the entire movie is propelled by Sissy Spacek's voiceover which explains her character’s inner thoughts and feelings. If you know me, you know I am NOT a proponent of voiceovers in film, but for Badlands, it meshes extraordinarily well with the characters. Specek is consistently emotionless and seemingly uncaring about the events unfolding around her. If it wasn’t for her voiceover, one might mistake this for bad acting. Instead, we learn from the things she says just how much of a psychopath she really is, and how Kit’s emotions and love are nothing more than entertainment for her. If everything I have said thus far doesn’t make you want to watch Badlands right now, then the cinematography certainly should. Throughout the movie, Malicks cinematography is impeccable. This, without a doubt, is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen (save for Malick’s other film, Days Of Heaven--but that is a whole other story). The way this movie portrays the melancholy loneliness of the American landscape is engaging and emotional. Even though many of the shots are of flat landscape, they still fully manage to portray the true breadth of America. You can feel the size of the continent as Kit and Holly drive endlessly into the setting sun. This film is so pretty that every frame of it could be printed out and hung on your wall as a work of art. I can’t speak highly enough about the cinematography in Badlands. Its beauty has me endlessly thinking about returning to this movie time and time again.
To try to completely explain the intricacies of Badlands on paper would be an impossible task. Trying to explain the movie’s images of the sun setting over an endless golden plain, the trees perfectly arching over a suburban American town road, or a hand-painted billboard standing completely alone in a cool steady breeze would truly be an impossibility. So please, I implore you, go watch Badlands tonight. If not tonight, then tomorrow. I promise you will thank me.