Released: October 15, 1973 (U.S.A.)
Director: Terrence Malick; Screenplay: Terrence Malick; Cinematography: Brian Probyn, Steven Larner, Tak Fujimoto; Studio: Warner Bros; Producer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Martin Sheen (Kit Carruthers), Sissy Spacek (Holly Sargis), Warren Oates (Father), Ramono Bieri (Cato), John Carter (Rich Man), Terrence Malick (Caller at Rich Man’s House)
I can think of few directors that are as polarizing as Terrence Malick. In my experience, there is very little middle ground in opinions of his work. Either he is loved and revered for his visual sense and dream-like, flowing narratives, or he is absolutely loathed and labeled as pretentious and boring. I don’t hesitate in placing myself in the former camp, finding his films to not only be distinctive, but among the most captivating in my collection. But with that being said, in regards to this debut film, I come down in the position that I just said tends not to exist – exactly in the middle. While a large percentage of Malick fans consider it his crowning achievement, I view Badlands more as a springboard from which he would move on to great heights with his filmmaking.
The storyline has been done many different times: a young couple sets off on a crime spree, evading laugh enforcement and leaving bodies in their wake. It is loosely based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. It has quite a bit in common films such as Bonnie and Clyde. This story is narrated by the teenage girl of the duo, Holly (Sissy Spacek), who is naively in awe of her older boyfriend Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen). Kit is a knockaround greaser-type who bounces around as a garbage man, farmer, and other odd jobs. When Holly’s father forbids her from seeing Kit any longer, Kit tries to no avail to convince him that he truly cares for Holly. This fails and Kit responds by sneaking into the home and declaring that he is taking Holly with him. When the father (Warren Oates) moves to call the police, Kit shoots and kills him. Holly calmly tells Kit that he didn’t need to kill her father, but does little more to resist. Instead, the two set the family home on fire and set off on their cross-country trek.
While narration is often difficult to handle in film, Malick is one of the few directors that utilize it effectively. By using Holly as the narrator, it sets the crime spree in an unusual light. She is so naïve in her descriptions, that without knowing the plot of the movie, an unsuspecting viewer would have no idea that this couple was hiding out from law enforcement, breaking into millionaire’s mansions, and dropping bodies wherever they stopped. Holly is completely indifferent toward the violence. In one telling scene, they encounter another couple on a deserted farm. Not wanting to allow any witnesses to turn them in, Kit pulls a revolver and begins to march the man into a field. Holly follows behind them with the other female, skipping and discussion mundane, common things. She seems completely oblivious to the fact that just yards ahead of her, Kit is holding a man at gunpoint and is very likely going to kill him.
Outside of his violent and murderous outbursts, Kit is portrayed as a regular everyman who is just drifting aimlessly through life trying to find a purpose. He takes pride whenever someone tells him that he resembles James Dean and seems hell-bent on flaming out in similar fashion. Kit recognizes that what he is doing is “wrong,” at least by societal standards, but he too seems to exhibit a complete lack of empathy. When the couple is finally captured, Kit acts almost joyous in lapping up the attention that is paid to him by the local sheriffs.
The issue that I ultimately have with the characters is that they just feel flat. Both Kit and Holly seem locked into the outlooks described above and never stray from them, maintaining these lifeless dispositions even through incredibly violent outbursts. The worst thing that can happen to me in a film is to have absolutely no interest in what happens to the characters that I’m watching. It doesn’t matter whether I wish them ill or well, what is important is that I have some kind of feeling toward them. Neither Holly nor Kit was able to generate much of that feeling for me, and thus I was left with simply enjoying the scenery.
Fortunately, this is Terrence Malick that we’re talking about, so simply “enjoying the scenery” can be a journey in itself. While I think it pales into comparison to some of his later films, the visuals in Badlands are still excellent. The amazing thing is that Malick rotated through three different cinematographers in the course of filming, yet managed to preserve a unified visual style. Watching Kit and Holly traveling across the open lands of South Dakota, driving into mountains and gorgeous setting suns, never fails to keep your attention glued to the screen. It’s not enough for me to place this film in the same lofty status that others have, but it does still make the film worthwhile and enjoyable for me.
As I said, Terrence Malick is among a handful of my favorite directors. Ironically, my feelings toward Malick are the exact opposite of how most serious fans of his work feel. It seems that a majority believe that this debut film was his pinnacle, and that in his three films over the next 32 years he never again reached this level. I completely disagree and feel that he has actually gotten better with each successive outing (which I will also be reviewing in the near future), and that is why Badlands is still an interesting film for me. Even though it’s not a favorite, it’s fascinating for me to be able to see the progression of Malick as a director.