Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands tells a shocking tale of cold-blooded murder as seen through the eyes of an apathetic 15-year-old girl. The film is loosely based on the 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, but its story goes beyond the harsh realities of that real-life case. Badlands is the antithesis of the American dream. Malick’s film is a portrait of freedom gone wrong. Buoyed by strong performances from the two leads, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Badlands couples the horrific images of brutal murders against the beautiful backdrop of the American landscape.
What happens when two people who feel like they have nothing in the world find something in each other? In the case of the two lead characters in Badlands, they take revenge on the world in a murderous multi-state rampage. Spacek plays Holly, a lonely 15-year-old whose mother died while giving birth to her. She feels unloved by her father. She spends her days twirling her baton in the yard, reveling in the innocence of youth. It’s that innocence that attracts Kit (Sheen), a ne’er-do-well drifter, who is obsessed with James Dean and feels the world owes him something. To Holly, Kit’s futile outlook on life seems deep. Dark and brooding, he was “handsomer than anyone” she had ever met.
Holly narrates the story with a disaffected, matter-of-fact drawl about the events that happen throughout her relationship with Kit. It’s that apathy that epitomizes everything this film is about. She’s so sure of her own innocence that she can’t see what’s happening right in front of her. She’s just along for the ride, falling for Kit’s explanations that everything they’re doing is necessary. What they are doing is anything they want. Anyone who gets in their way is killed, and on they go with no purpose other than their own selfish desires. However, their actions are not without motivation.
For Kit, that motivation is fame. Sheen is very effective in portraying both the charismatic character Holly falls for, while at the same time showing the audience that Kit’s charm is just a façade. For Holly, the motivation is attention. It’s almost a cliché, but Spacek plays it with such subtlety that the character feels real. Holly feels her father doesn’t love her, even blaming her for her mother’s death. She is so ready for attention from someone like Kit that he could have been almost anyone. She doesn’t see him for what he is because he replaces something that’s been missing from her life.
In stark contrast to the characters’ actions is the breathtaking beauty of their surroundings. The wide open spaces represent the freedom that could have been available to them if they had made better decisions. Their lives were not as confined and narrow as they thought they were. The whole world was out there, but they were too wrapped up in their own frustrations to see it. As the couple travels aimlessly, we see lush green meadows, sandy deserts, and vast fields of grass. Animals roam through the landscape, unaware they’re in the presence of cold-blooded killers.
What’s striking about Badlands is how subdued it is. Kit is a man of few words and Holly stares with wide-eyed blankness at everything around her. Though acts of brutality are committed, they are not shown in a gratuitous manner. This film is not so much about the violence it portrays, but about how the characters are affected by it. In the case of Kit, he seems unaffected. He relishes the power he has over his victims and Holly. It’s as though he has discovered something he’s really good at. He’s actually boastful about his deeds, as though he had actually accomplished something. Holly, on the other hand, begins to realize that life could hold something more for her. She wonders about what her future husband will be like. For the first time, she imagines her life beyond her immediate circumstances.
For better or worse, Badlands is non-judgmental about its characters. Not that it glamorizes murder, but the characters are not portrayed as “villains.” They are not evil, they don’t even seem bad. In fact, Kit seems more likeable than Holly, though he’s the one pulling the trigger. He has a certain charm and gives off an air of gravitas, though if you really dig into what he’s saying you realize his words are empty. Holly, on the other hand, is frustratingly naïve. It’s hard to believe someone could be so stupid as to go along with Kit, but we see similar stories in real headlines all the time, including the one this film was based on.
The Criterion DVD offers a decent, though not overly impressive, group of special features. One of the most notable is the new making of documentary, which features new interviews with stars Sheen and Spacek. The documentary offers a lot of insight on the making of the film and the impact it had on the careers of the two actors. Also included is an episode of American Justice centering on the real life Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. It was interesting to see where the film departed from the real case. Sadly, the real-life events were much more violent and brutal than what was depicted in this film. There are also interviews with associate editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman. An informative essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda is included with the booklet.