Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are killers on the run in Terrence Malick's masterpiece Badlands
powerful and brilliant. Nothing Malick has done since has reached the same beautiful balance between story, profundity, poetry and realism.
Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is an aimless young man, recently fired from his job as a garbage collector in South Dakota. His imagination is captured by a teenage girl, Holly (Sissy Spacek), freshly arrived from Texas. He romances the young girl – who is naively swept up in the possibility of Kit’s poetic soul – but her father (Warren Oates) disapproves. So, in a casual confrontation at their home, Kit kills the father, burns down the house and he and Holly head out on the run. Travelling across the country, Kit kills with a casual lack of maliciousness, all the time building in his head his self-image as a James Dean-like hero in his own movie, a poet turned outlaw. Holly narrates the film, her guileless, innocent and often unreliable narrative revealing her own naivety. Sheen is outstanding as Kit, idealistic but empty, while Spacek gives Holly a sublime blankness that makes us never sure how much she understands the situation she is in.
Malick based the film on the killing spree of Charles Starkweather, who carried out a murderous journey across several states in the mid-West with his underage girlfriend in the late 50s. But what Malick found in this story was a fascinating insight into how people can become absorbed by the romanticism of the American pioneer spirit, to try and turn their own lives into something with meaning and depth. So, Kit can be little more than a not particularly bright casual killer, but he builds his own self-image as something part-way between movie star and philosopher poet.
What the film does quite brilliantly is balance the ruthlessness of Kit with this dreamlike poeticism. Much as you shouldn’t, you end up caring a little for Kit and Holly, while deploring their brutality. Perhaps it’s because both of them feel so young. After the murder of her father, they build a cabin in the woods and live off the land, with all the enthusiasm of kids. There is something very vulnerable about both of them, their abilities to really understand the situations they are in and the moral implications of their actions non-existent. In a way they are playing – but with real guns.
Their life has been so filtered through the Hollywood celebrity culture growing around them, that they see their actions like part of a film. Death is as unreal and without impact as it is in Hollywood. Kit twice, early in the film, prods dead animals with nerveless curiosity – the same blankness and lack of reaction that he will later treat dead people with. Holly is briefly shocked by the death of her father, but then builds all Kit’s actions into a narrative of romantic drama.
Kit and Holly build their own narrative the whole time – but with a shallow emptiness that reveals their own pretensions. Both of them are collectors of odds-and-ends – Kit picks up mementos and strange souvenirs from where they have been, treating these as near religious icons that future generations will use to mark his presence. Objects from lamps to paintings to rocks are invested with artistic value by the pair. Kit’s shallowness is clear: early in the film he picks up a large rock from under the tree where they first made love, determined to keep it forever as a memento. After walking a few metres, he drops it and decides to take a lighter rock. Later, when Kit is finally cornered by the police, his main concern is to build a small cairn to mark the location where he was caught.
Kit wants to be more than he is. He is delighted when his physical resemblance to James Dean is noted by the police (his appearance is carefully studied to cultivate this). At a rich man’s house, he decides to record messages for posterity – words so bland, predictable and lacking in depth they reveal the total lack of imagination and original thought in Kit. He is polite, generally kind to his victims (before killing them) and thinks of himself as a sort of poet of the wilderness. Neither he nor Holly understands the horrific finality of death. The couple have a fatally corrupted innocence, a childlike, romantic understanding of the world that becomes a sort of fairy-tale. And you can totally see why a naïve young girl like Holly might see Kit as a romantic figure who can set her free.
Malick’s film wraps this up in a film of dreamlike beauty. In later films, Malick became so obsessed with beautiful images, and increasingly pretentious in his themes, that they became self-important artefacts. But Badlands balances these instincts beautifully with a fascinating and revealing story.
The shooting of the film offers up one beautiful image after another, reflecting the poetic longings of the couple at its heart, while underpinning sharply their blandness. Malick captures the awesome grandness of the Badlands themselves, a dusty stretch of emptiness that goes on forever. Malick shoots moments, like the house-fire, with such grace and perfection that they take on deep psychological meaning (what else is that house fire but the death of Holly’s early life?). Shots of nature – the sort of wildlife photography that would go too far in later films – place the couple in exactly the sort of tranquil independence, free from the burdens of the real world, that they long for. It’s an American dream, the celebration of the pioneer spirit deeply and darkly inverted.
The film is an enigma that avoids ever casting easy judgements on its characters. Their actions may be awful, but how much have they been bent and twisted by the world around them? The film’s eclectic musical choices – Carl Orff to Nat King Cole – bring the film a sense of magic, again a dreamlike mysticism. It’s fitting for a young couple who are living in a dream, with no consequences and no morals. This impressionistic masterpiece, which mixes in moments of shocking realism and casual violence, reflects the inner life of its leads, both yearning to be more than they are, and directing these longings into disastrous ends. Badlands is one of the greatest debut films in history, and still the perfect fusing of Malick’s poetic leanings with narrative film-making.