Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut Badlands contained all the hints that Malick’s career was going to be something very special. Present are all the trademarks that would come to define his next three films (Days of Heaven , The Thin Red Line , The New World ): the enigmatic voice over, the classically influenced score, and the lingering shots of the natural world. Badlands is perhaps the most straight-forward narrative of Malick’s films, but all the same it takes the idea of two lovers on the run from the law and society and makes it all his own. The naturalistic acting, and laconic pace of the film (despite its relatively short run-time), set it against other more melodramatic representations of the 50s, ironically giving the film an ethereal, fairy-tale feeling.
Badlands tells the story of Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), an aimless young man in small-town South Dakota, who meets Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). The two fall in love, after which Kit kills Holly’s father (Warren Oates) and they are forced to go on the run across the prairie hoping to make it to Saskatchewan (the film is based on a real-life killing spree by Charles Starkweather in 1958). Sheen’s Kit is on the surface a troubled fifties youth in the mold of James Dean’s Jim from Rebel Without a Cause, yet his quiet calm nature belies his capacity to go on a violent shooting spree. Malick’s treatment of Kit and Holly’s romantic drive to be together against all the pressures of society stands in stark constrast to other films of this type, such as 1967s Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers  or True Romance  (which even included an obvious homage to Badlands through a score influenced on “Gassenhauer”, the Carl Orf melody that is repeated throughout the film). Holly’s romantic narration of her life with Kit is contrasted against the grim reality that Kit will eventually face justice for what he has done.
The exploits of Kit and Holly’s flight from society is intercut with their attempts to carve out a “back-to-nature” life, and numerous shots of plants and animals. Malick shows the eye for landscapes and composition that would become an important part of his style. His interest in nature is actually central to this film, in that it calls to question the viability of the radical romantic notion of two lovers against the world. The fact is that Kit and Holly can never truly be independent of society, as Malick’s film breaks down the dichotomy between nature and culture present in most films. His elevation of nature is not a naive admiration, but rather a recognition that human culture is inseparable from its place in the natural world. Badlands is perhaps an important film in understanding Malick’s over-all filmic work and the philosophy that underpins his later representations.
No matter how far Kit and Holly run, they cannot outrun their connection to society nor the gravity of what Kit has done. These themes of human justice and the inescapability of nature would later be explored more completely in Malick’s later films, but Badlands is an engrossing film in its own right, and offers a fascinating take on 50s society.
Note: Director Terrence Malick has a small, uncredited cameo as the man who comes calling at the Rich Man’s house.
9 out of 10
Written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.