Holly: At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.
In an environment where boredom reigns supreme and breeds nothing but indifference, a 15 year old girl follows a 25 year old guy across the wastelands of America. It just so happens to be that they kill some people along the way.
Murdering is not important in Badlands, Terrence Malick’s debut from 1973, which I can safely say is as impactful now as it must have been 40 years ago. Instead, the film is a study of detachment in the highest degree; a film that purportedly involves a romance, but that portrays its “lovers” as apathetic. Holly is a young teenager with an overly controlling father, who becomes attached to Kit, an older boy who works a job throwing garbage. The two find each other on Holly’s front lawn as she twists batons, and the rest is history.
Already we have Malick’s signature voice overs, which, despite being beautifully philosophical, prove that conversations aren’t his strong point. Holly begins the film with her own narration, admitting that she is a “little stranger” in her own house, and at the end she wraps up the story with facts. Facts are what moves the film along. They are its essence, and what the characters cling on to in order to make sense of their reality. Holly reveals her intense fascination with them when she admits to herself in plain terms “that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live.” This sudden realisation leads her to reach out for further details, “where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me?”, “what’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like?” Facts are her past (“my Mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My Father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years”), present, and future, for they are all that is available to her in this empty America where ambition has been replaced by monotony.
Kit also draws on facts in reaction to his crimes. When asked by Holly how one of his victims is, he replies “I got him in the stomach”, detailing only the particulars of the gunshot wound. Played by the brilliant Martin Sheen who walks around emulating James Dean, Kit is never plagued by his sins, but instead is severed completely from moral judgement. He and Sissy Spacek display the perfect amount of curious disappointment with life, but accept their situations peacefully and without concern. After realising that their ideal life in the tree house is over, they drive and dance to the sound of Nat King Cole singing “the dream has ended, for true love died”, a fitting adieu before the helicopter scene where Holly decides to stop running.
I watched this with my Mum who saw this in the cinema when it first came out, and afterwards she admitted that it gets better for her with each watch. She said that back in the 1970s the couple’s blase attitude towards their victims had really horrified her, whereas now she can appreciate the film more as an observation of middle America’s lonely inhabitants. It’s strange to think that a film like this could have unsettled someone so much (it didn’t unsettle me, but did slightly confuse me), but I think that it is testament to Malick’s talent that he could depict a murderer and his accomplice so objectively and from such a distance. Rather than provide a moral voice, Malick chooses to focus on images of nature that dampen the horror of the shootings. And he did all of this in his first film, years before this kind of postmodern detachment towards serious violence was commonplace. Ultimately, Badlands is best appreciated once the viewer relaxes and accepts the peculiar and slightly comedic tone of the script. There is no deep psychology at play here, but there is philosophy, the philosophy of life and love in the hands of two characters who have a skewed view of both.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2