Warning: This essay contains spoilers
In Badlands’ epilogue, when all the killing is over and our protagonists have finally been caught, one of the police officers asks him, “You like people?” Kit responds, “They’re okay.” This answer strikes the officer as a bit odd, so he follows it up with, “Then why’d you do it?” Kit’s first response is simple: “I don’t know.” This dialogue sets down the stakes for the film and what it’s trying to implicitly answer: Why did these two seemingly normal people go on a cross-country killing spree, and what is it that makes theirs so strikingly different from all the other movies that about serial killers on the run?
When Terrence Malick began shooting Badlands his only experience directing was with Lanton Mills, but he had a number of screenplays to his name, both produced and unproduced, circulating around Hollywood. After finishing up at the AFI Institute he began working on what would eventually become his first feature while writing and rewriting for money on the side. The picture was budgeted at just $300,000 but the remarkable thing was that it was made at all, since the director was almost completely untested. But the ‘70s were a different time and investors were still forthcoming, and while Malick put $25,000 of his own money up for the picture, the rest came from outsiders he and executive producer Edward R. Pressman were able to round up (at that time Pressman’s only real success was Brian De Palma’s Sisters). “They invested on faith,” Malick later said about why they were able to succeed.
First cast for the picture was Sissy Spacek as 15-year-old Holly, chosen partially because she came from the same area as Malick and could twirl batons. Cast as the film’s other lead was Martin Sheen, at the time a character-actor looking to move into larger pictures but persuaded by the screenplay to take the job, and due to his performance the role was somewhat changed to make sense of how much older than Spacek he is. Much later he talked with The Guardian about the screenplay,“It was mesmerising. It disarmed you. It was a period piece, and yet of all time. It was extremely American, it caught the spirit of the people, of the culture, in a way that was immediately identifiable.” He wasn’t the only one taking a pay cut and working “on faith” because of the script, either. The casting director explained, “My cousin was working for Terry for free. And I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And she said, ‘Because he’s so nice and the script is so good.’ I said, ‘No, you’ve got to ask him for some money.’ And she was afraid to do that, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to him.’ I met with him, and he gave me the script, and then I wound up working for free. Because the script was so good.” Notably, this was also the last time Malick would stick at all close to his script.
The shoot began in La Junta, Colorado with a crew almost as inexperienced as its first-time director. By the end of the shoot, almost everyone had quit, many because of Malick’s idiosyncratic working methods. He preferred to shoot in sequence rather than using the same set-up for his shots, which endlessly annoyed his cinematographers such that the first one quit and the second left as soon as a replacement could be found. While unlike his later movies Malick relied heavily on Badlands script, he still had improvisational shots, in which he’d rush the crew out with no one having an idea of what was expected. One of the most iconic shots in the movie, Sheen emulating James Dean from Giant while holding his gun, came from those improvisational shots, but everyone actually working on the picture hated this practice.
The crew was malcontent, to the point that Malick actually engaged in a fistfight with the associate producer because of a comment made about his wife. With money short, their working conditions were difficult and exacerbated by Malick’s insistence on shooting an abnormal amount of film so as to have more to edit with later. First unit shooting took three and a half months, at which point money ran out. At that point, Malick did more script work, then came back and worked with a second unit for another month. The low point for the production came when a fire scene destroyed at least one camera and nearly killed much of the crew. By the end of the picture, Sheen and Spacek were doing extra duty as crew members because so much of the actual crew had deserted.
One of the incredible things about the movie is that with all of this production drama going on, the picture feels incredibly unified. Badlands begins with Spacek’s narration as Holly. The entirety of her backstory comes from this first monologue, where we’re told her mother died of pneumonia and after her death, “He could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house.” Then the film gives us a montage of images from this small town in Texas before introducing us to Kit, who’s shown working as a garbageman. Kit sees her twirling a baton in front of their house and their fates are sealed.
Badlands begins portentously but its focus early on is this small town romance. Holly seems drawn to Kit because he’s an older man with a vague resemblance to James Dean who pays attention to her. Kit’s drawn to Holly because she’s pretty and willing to put up with him. In both cases their attitude towards one another is far short of love or even respect; it’s a passionless romance. “Little by little we fell in love,” Holly narrates, but we don’t see this on-screen and likewise there’s no chemistry between the two characters, so little in fact that it’s suggested they’d have no chemistry with anyone. Holly tells us Kit chose her because “I looked good to him and whatever I did was okay, and if I didn’t have a lot to say that was okay, too.” Even this early on Kit’s concern is for the appearance of what’s happening but without any sort of inner life. Holly doesn’t have to speak, it doesn’t matter, nor does the couple have to have sex. What they are required to do is look the part of young lovers, and Holly’s there to complete the image.
Another part of these early sequences that’s worth noting is how much focus, both in the visuals and in the dialogue, rests on objects. Early on we see Kit send off a balloon full of “a box with some of our little tokens and things.” Regardless of the wonderful shot we get of it drifting into the air, it’s an inexplicable moment. Similarly odd is one of Badlands’ most famous exchanges, when Kit responds to Holly mentioning how nice their location is with the terse, “It’s the tree that makes it nice.” We’re kept at an arms’ length through these invocations to objectss rather than feelings or thoughts, especially since they’re imbued with no special meaning. What it is about the tree that’s “nice” we’re never told, likewise we don’t know what the “tokens and things” are that get sent up in the balloon. The fetishization of objects continues throughout the picture and it’s worth considering the value Kit places on them rather than people—he’s willing to lecture to objects but not to people and the one person he can’t bring himself to kill is the one whose objects he admires.
Unfortunately for Kit, Holly’s father, with good reason, isn’t keen on his daughter dating a man 10 years older than her. Despite this rejection Kit turns up at Holly’s place and begins packing her stuff, clearly in the hope of taking her with him. When Holly and her father arrive, he kills her father and after burning down the house they head out as fugitives, certain that the police will be after them when only one person’s bones are found in the house’s remains.
Here’s when Badlands shows its roots and its real story begins. The basic plot of Badlands was drawn from Charles Starkweather’s murder spree with his girlfriend in 1958, but other than an older man and a young girl killing a bunch of people there isn’t a huge link. In essence it’s closer to a retelling of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a film Malick greatly admired, but in this respect it’s not particularly unique. Bonnie and Clyde was huge, and in its wake came an absolute ton of imitators, including Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, Noel Black’s Pretty Poison, John Hough’s Dirty Larry and Crazy Mary, and many more, such that for half a decade the “lovers on the lam” genre remained a constant fixture in cinemas. The New Yorker’s original review of Badlands has it coupled with Spielberg’s Sugarland Express and in comparison Pauline Kael finds it severely lacking (to her credit, it should be noted that Sugarland is in fact a pretty great picture in its own right; it’s just no Badlands).
One of the primary differences between Badlands the others lies in the way it diagnoses the problem. There’s no social context to explain why Kit becomes a murderer and the film barely addresses any possible economic reasons why he’d act up. Likewise the kills don’t seem particularly thrilling for either protagonist and the two, while purportedly in love, do little to show it. When Holly says, “that’s it?” about sex, she’s speaking just as much about having Kit love her. Really, that’s all there is? Other movies in the genre tried to see their criminals as endemic to some problem or another, but at every turn Badlands rejects that sort of interpretation.
In this next sequence, which seem in many ways the closest to Malick’s heart, Holly and Kit construct a treehouse in the forest and attempt to hide out there and make a life. Their life is seemingly idyllic, but Holly wonders about why it’s not a fairytale and considers a series of questions such as what if her parents hadn’t met or her mother had lived or, tellingly, what would the man (clearly not Kit) she’d marry look like while looking at a stereopticon. These questions hit her because Holly realized she was “just a girl … who had just so many years to live.”
This section shows fantastic nature footage, sometimes related to the scene and occasionally non sequitor shots that became Malick’s signature, but more than that it sets the stage for greater questions to be asked about these murders. If these characters’ specific backgrounds aren’t the cause of their sociopathic tendencies, then it may be related more to this thought that “sent a chill down my [Holly’s] spine.” But the questions Holly asks aren’t about death and her place in the world, they’re about her own identity. Is she just this girl whose death is the same as everyone else’s or is she individual, is her mother’s death relevant to who she is, likewise is there something essential about Holly that will land her a husband or could it just be anyone? As the film goes on Holly gradually asserts her individuality more (although still not a lot) while Kit loses his and becomes more and more just a type. When he’s described as being like James Dean, he actively emulates this. His monologue about adjusting to the majority opinion is similar to another sociopath from later in the decade, Travis Bickle, who believes that one should “become a person like other people.” Kit takes this to the extreme and lives for those around him, first Holly and then when she leaves him the police officers who arrest him.
This sequence ends abruptly with the arrival of bounty hunters looking to kill or arrest the pair. Kit shoots them first and they drive to the only friend, of a sort, Kit still has. But after this friend runs back to his house, Kit shoots him and he soon dies as well, although he seems to bear no hard feelings towards Kit about this. While still there another couple arrives and Kit locks them in a cellar, where he may or may not shoot them before they head out again.
Here Malick illustrates that Kit and Holly are not alone in their affectless. All three of these individuals they speak with have a similar demeanor and are completely accepting of these murders taking place—if this friend is upset, “he didn’t say nothing to me [Kit] about it.”. In contrast with the violence of Bonnie and Clyde, here we don’t even see what happened to the pair locked in the cellar, which makes sense given that Kit and Holly don’t particularly care what happens to them. Holly voices some small concerns here about Kit’s willingness to kill at random, but they’re pretty insignificant and neither one of them shows the slightest bit of remorse..
Equally jarring, though, is the lack of value these minor characters seem to have for their own lives. The couple they meet which is shot in a way so as to mirror Kit and Holly and is an obvious analogue to the protagonists. They’re even framed from behind in a way that makes it difficult to tell who’s speaking, causing their identities blur further.
Girl: What’s going to happen to Jack and me?
Holly: You have to ask Kit. He says ‘frog,’ I jump.
Holly: What’s your friend’s name?
Holly: You love him?
Girl: I don’t know.
Holly: I’ve got to stick by Kit. He feels trapped.
Girl: Yeah, I can imagine.
Holly: Well, I’ve felt that way, hadn’t you?
Like Holly, the girl doesn’t know if she loves her boyfriend nor does she seem to really care. She also doesn’t see why Holly should help her out, sticking by Kit rather than saving them makes perfect sense to her. The girl knows it’s likely she’ll be killed, but that’s “Okay.” At the end of their dialogue, Holly asks for assertion that the girl is like them and the answer, while cut off by Kit, is an implicit “Yes.” They’re set up to be exactly like Kit and Holly, the only difference seems to be the gun.
At the beginning of this dialogue Holly mentions that if Kit calls her frog, she must jump, a variant of the more typical “when I say jump you say, ‘how high,’” formulation. Kit calls her numerous nicknames throughout Badlands, ginger, red, you etc. despite Holly’s early protestation that she doesn’t like it. It’s another way of making her more generic; she’s not Holly, she’s simply the redhead girl who goes with him and part of the image he cultivates.
The pair continues on the road again, now stopping at the rich person’s house mentioned earlier. Finally we meet a person Kit actually respects, despite not knowing anything about him. This is because his affluence gives him an identity Kit appreciates, not to mention owning objects that seem to say something about him. It’s a short sequence, but particularly notable for the appearance at the door of the elusive Malick himself, forced to appear when the actor meant to play the role didn’t show up.
After this sequence there’s an fairly long interim of the couple travelling through picturesque landscapes and then we’re at the film’s big finale. The disconnect between Kit and Holly has grown and his non-sequitors about random objects are beginning to annoy her. In the same trip he lays a time capsule and we’re shown a scene that only makes thematic sense in which Kit shoots a football with one of his few remaining bullets, another emblem of his individuality that he’s destroyed. A brief but exciting car chase begins but it ends just as quickly when Kit stops, gets out of his car and shoots his tire as evidence that he couldn’t go on. That is to say that his escape didn’t work with the persona he wants to project so he’s forced to emulate his ideal circumstances. James Dean’s car, he believes, would have been shot, and from here on out he’s performing this role for the police. He gives away the few remaining items in his possession as if they were prizes while Holly looks on and tells us about what happened after the film’s images end:
“Kit and I were taken back to South Dakota. They kept him in solitary, so he didn’t have a chance to get acquainted with the other inmates, though he was sure they’d like him, especially the murderers. Myself, I got off with probation and a lot of nasty looks. Later, I married the son of the lawyer who defended me. Kit went to sleep in the courtroom while his confession was being read, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On a warm spring night, six months later, after donating his body to science, he did.”
Holly marrying the lawyer who defended her is particularly surprising, especially because of the thrown off manner it’s mentioned, as if after this journey with Kit nothing else in her life really mattered. Kit continues on with his posing and he’s sure the inmates would like him, which makes sense because in a movie the inmates would like James Dean. Kit sleeps through his trial the same way he slept through his life and after he’s gone, his body itself becomes an object, donated to science rather than cremated or destroyed.
Upon its release Badlands met surprisingly mixed reviews. As noted above, Kael thought it was pretentious and ponderous, cynically faux-intellectual in the typical way that she despised. Conversely, though, Vincent Canby’s write-up in the New York Times after its premiere is positively glowing, noting that it even outshone Martin Scorsese’s soon-to-be breakout Mean Streets at the New York Film Festival where it premiered on October 15, 1973. His summary of what makes it interesting is much more astute, “They are not ill-housed, ill-clothed, or ill-fed. If they are at all aware of their anger (and I’m not sure they are, since they see only boredom), it’s because of the difference between the way life is and the way it is presented on the small screen, with commercial breaks instead of lasting consequences.”
Today, Badlands’ place in Malick’s body of work is that it’s the film that everyone universally loves. Nothing else he’s worked on before or since has the same following, and I think a lot of this comes from it being both his most conventional film (its plot adhering strictly to a genre formula) and his simplest. Every Malick film afterwards has been in at least some sense an epic. Badlands, while by no means a small effort, has more manageable goals and it succeeds at everything. Most of his other films attempt to be so large that they can’t possibly hit in every way and many find that disappointing. Here, though, it’s much more character-focused than anything he did again and these two flattened individuals become distinct in their own way. There are as many narrative ellipses here as later, but the causality is much simpler. In a way, Malick didn’t fully understand what he could get away with yet so he kept much of the traditional Hollywood format—when he had free reign his movies become more distinctive but with this they slipped forever out of the true mainstream.
Next week we’ll take a look at the debacle/masterpiece Days of Heaven and what happens when Malick’s resources are nigh unlimited.