Badlands (1973)

Love will get ya sometimes.

15-year-old girl Holly (Sissy Spacek) doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life. However, when she meets the cool, calm, and rebellious boy in Kit (Martin Sheen), for some reason, she is absolutely swept off of her feet. Even though he’s a garbage man and doesn’t seem to really be able to hold a job down, there’s just something about Kit that takes over Holly’s mind, body and soul. However, her father (Warren Oates) isn’t too happy about this latest infatuation and makes it known that she will not be with him, nor will he be with her. That obviously doesn’t fly with Kit and it leads to a disastrous confrontation in which, now, Kit and Holly have to go on the run from the law. On their trip, not only do they fall more in love, but they teach each other about life and the more beautiful things about it. And, oh yeah, they also kill a lot of people, too.

Is this true love?
Is this true love?

It’s really interesting to see just where Terrence Malick’s career has gone as of late. Nowadays, it seems as if every picture he takes on and releases (regardless of how long they may actually take to come out), is as ambitious, crazy and unpredictable as the next, that it’s hard to ever get a full, crystal clear picture of where he’s going to go next, or just what’s going on in that noggin of his. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – some of the greatness to the Tree of Life is not having a clue just what the hell he’s going to do, or why, because he just does it.

But what’s weird, especially when watching Badlands, is how Malick, when he was first getting started, didn’t really seem to tackle these tales just yet. Sure, he definitely showed signs of it, more or less, but in all honesty, what he cared more about was telling a simple story that, yes, featured beautiful visuals, but also great acting. Badlands is, in the most simplest form, Malick’s most easygoing and accessible movie, however, it’s still got a lot of what Malick does best.

For one, it’s a heck of a beaut. While you can tell that Malick hadn’t quite mastered the art of the swooping camera just yet, Badlands still takes plenty advantage of that time when it’s so early in the morning, that the sun is hardly coming up and there’s nothing else in the horizon but clouds and the tops of mountains. I’m sure that having his movie set in and around South Dakota, as well as the mountains of Montana, helped in terms of making this movie look great, but it’s also just a true testament to the kind of eye he has as a director.

It’s nice to see that Malick hasn’t lost that ability since.

As for the story, well, yeah, it’s actually a very simple one, but what Malick does best is that he doesn’t really try to hit us over the head with saying anything big or important about it, but instead, just lets it all tell itself. While that may not seem like much and just a case of Malick sitting a round out, believe it or not, it actually works in the movie’s favor. Not only does it have us see these characters and their actions in an nonjudgmental, almost normal light, but it makes the brief, but shocking moments of violence and murder all the more disturbing.

Which is to say that Holly and Kit, given how easy it must have been to write them as, are still two compelling figures who you don’t really hate, but instead, think long and hard about. The fact that Malick portrays their actions as things that happen, rather than as huge moments that need to be shown and talked about, is why Badlands sticks around in the brain longer. Holly and Kit both seem to react to these acts of violence differently – he’s the one always doing it and not really happy about it, but knows that he can’t survive without it, whereas she has no clue of what’s going on, but is going along for the ride anyway.

Be prepared, suburbia!
Be prepared, suburbia!

The movie is clearly not in their favor, but Malick himself also doesn’t lose the appeal of these kinds of characters and why they’re worth watching. While he doesn’t glamorize either of their actions, he also makes it clear that they’re doing this, just because; sometimes, there’s no reason or rhyme for the things that us humans do. Sometimes, when we feel the need to kill, to survive, or to experience something, we go right for it. That’s exactly what Kit and Holly seem to be doing here, however, Malick isn’t telling us to think this and it’s probably one of the main reasons why this movie works a lot more than some of his others, later-period flicks.

Oh and yeah, Sheen and Spacek are pretty awesome in the roles, too.

Not only do they look young as all hell, but they also feel pretty legit as a real life couple of lovebirds who would latch up together and go on this wild goose chase from Johnny law. Sheen’s especially more riveting as Kit, someone who seems like he was just a bad seed from the very beginning, but always seemed to get by on his pure good looks and charm – something that the movie constantly makes a reference to, but never actually highlights as a positive. Instead, it works out for him because he uses his solid looks in a deceitful manner where he’s able to trick those around him, whether they expect it or not.

But maybe that’s why Kit’s such an intriguing character. He has no motive or reasoning for his shooting spree – he sort of just got started on doing it and thought, “Well, I’ve come this far”. For some reason, it’s hard to look at a character like this and not think of the countless, upon countless of those who shoot up public places every year, with the idea in their head of, “Well, why the hell not?” Once again, Malick isn’t trying to tell us to think this way, or have this in our minds, but it’s hard not to go there and it’s why Badlands is a movie that will surely stand the test of time.

No matter how many more movies Malick makes featuring dinosaurs.

Consensus: Simple on the surface, thought-provoking and compelling underneath, Badlands is a brutally violent, but beautiful-looking and acted movie that has Malick asking hard questions, without ever trying to answering them, and we’re all the better for it.

9 / 10

Sociopaths tend to enjoy lovely sunsets.
Sociopaths tend to enjoy lovely sunsets.

Photos Courtesy of: CTCMR


  1. I like Old Malick more than new Malick and Badlands is that near-impossible thing: a great American movie that was both an artistic triumph and a box-office success. The film is also beautifully photographed with no less than three credited cinematographers.
    Nice review!.

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