Film’s invention and early proliferation collapsed its audiences’ understanding of space and time as it had been seen and lived for centuries, technologically re-engineering the sensory experience of daily life in parallel with the large-scale construction of skyscrapers, the development of the railroad, and the pioneering early days of flight. Yet at the same time, cinema retained a special capacity to depict the landscape that was vanishing before society’s eyes. Although its modus operandi fundamentally relies on rendering motion from stillness, film remains able to render the land’s own inherent stillness against a world in motion, to juxtapose vast vistas and tiny details, creating images that serve as a specter or memory of an erased nature. In this way, it miniaturizes one of modernity’s central contradictions: our longing for a nature that we can imagine only through the technologies we have used to destroy it. This paradox is linked to another, perhaps more consequential one—that modern man is still not truly separate from nature, and is still given over to merciless animal forces like violence and lust.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cinematographers: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Editor: Robert Estrin
Music: George Aliceson Tipton
Cast: Martin Sheet, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn
Premiere: October 13, 1973 New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 15, 1973
US Distributors: Warner Bros.
The impulse to investigate this potent tangle of questions animates Terence Malick’s astonishing first two feature films, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven. Malick’s later films—which lie on the other side of a two-decade gulf of inactivity—are equally philosophical in their bent, but their thematic orbit skews either existential—as in 2010’s heralded The Tree of Life and the recent, much-maligned To the Wonder—or ethical—1999’s The Thin Red Line, a smart if scattershot epic, and 2006’s flawed but visually stunning The New World. In this way, Malick’s early films are more closely tied to America’s psyche, its id, a complex and compromised wanderlust that—especially in Badlands—plays out against a landscape that continually succumbs to civilization’s infiltration and contamination.
Based roughly on a true story of a teenage murder spree circa 1958, Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) as their budding romance transforms into a violent, quixotic crusade. Holly is a Texas-born teenager living life in a dead-end small town in South Dakota and Kit is a garbage man a decade her senior, who introduces himself while she’s practicing baton-twirling on her front lawn. Before too long, Kit is asking her father’s permission to date her, and it turns out he won’t take no for an answer. They go behind Holly’s father’s back for as long as they can, but he soon finds out, and following a short, unspectacular confrontation, Kit shoots and kills him.
Their lives thrown into disarray but their romance somehow intact, the couple’s journey begins. Kit burns down Holly’s family’s home and all of their possessions. This act helps obscure evidence of the murder, but it also annihilates the icons of Holly’s humdrum existence and erases the social coordinates that trap both her and Kit in a preordained life. After running away, they live off the land for a short spell, but when some nameless vigilantes come by hoping to reap the reward money attached to the duo’s capture, Kit’s propensity for violence erupts again. And so it goes—each time Kit finds another ramshackle solution for their increasingly fraught quandary, he eventually hits a dead end from which he can find no escape besides killing more people. Holly, naturally, wearies of the situation, drawing tentatively closer to halting it while Kit’s manic momentum increases.
Malick’s script is brilliantly minimal, but also rough-hewn, often slight and imprecise, the plotting and pacing slightly garbled. Yet without these shortcomings, the film wouldn’t let its characters be such brilliant riddles, somehow both fully realized and profoundly enigmatic. The two leads give these figures incredible life, perfectly striking Malick’s spiritual tone while shedding his writing’s less valuable idiosyncrasies.
As written, Holly’s dialogue—especially her occasionally overwrought voiceover—veers toward reductive archetypes of infantilized femininity, but Spacek nails the world-weary yet childish aura needed to make Holly whole. She gives a particularly transfixing depiction of Holly’s innocent, trusting adoration for Kit—which, even as it dissolves into practical concerns, never quite yields to bitterness. Spacek’s Holly becomes the film’s primary source of narrative momentum, the glue holding its events together in the face of the omnipresent question that surrounds its protagonists’ cruel and haphazard exploits: “Why?”
That question hangs, insoluble, over the only character in the film that could answer it, either implicitly or explicitly: Kit. Sheen is hypnotic in the role, presenting a cool yet mercurial facade that never lets us too far into Kit’s thoughts and evinces immaturity where lesser actors would substitute vulnerability (Sheen, for his part, maintains to this day that Badlands’ screenplay is the greatest he’s ever read). This immaculate portrayal crescendos when Kit, freshly captured and still in handcuffs, swaggers around a military base to applause and adoration from the very authorities detaining him, even fielding their questions. He’s got a reason—earlier, in the squad car, his police captors told him he was the spitting image of James Dean. Such a pop-culture reference feels like a preemptive departure from Malick’s trademark self-seriousness, but it’s a detail that helps make this film not only his most modern, but his most American: even an outlaw, fleeing civilization’s strictures toward the purity of animal longing, can’t resist the magnetic pull of becoming one of society’s celebrity totems.