‘Little did I realise that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.’
Badlands, (1973) a film written and directed by Terrence Malick, features Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) travelling across America, on the run from the law. Reminiscent of the notoriously iconic pair Bonnie and Clyde, the story of Kit and Holly is based on a cross-country killing spree, which happened during the late 1950s, involving Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
Narrated by Holly, Badlands recounts her experiences like an adventure, adrift and detached from society. The journey begins in South Dakota, where Kit and Holly meet and a romance sparks between them; at the time Kit works as a garbage collector and Holly is still in school. He respects her for her maturity and she is struck by his charm and free spirit—they plan to elope, but are held back by Holly’s father, (Warren Oates) whom Kit ends up shooting. Holly decides not to call the police, believing that for better or worse, her future is bound to Kit; they set the house on fire and hit the road, leaving in their wake a string of killings and robberies as they travel across the country.
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 comparison with Charles and Caril, on whom the characters of Kit and Holly were based on, reality seems to be always more brutal and disturbing; in Badlands the motives for the killings aren’t addressed, nor is their behavior otherwise particularly violent. Holly sees Kit as a sometimes strange, and the most trigger-happy person she has ever met; she doesn’t take part in any of the killings. It’s as if they are swept up in their own illusions, which blind them from fully comprehending their actions—Kit especially shows no remorse, seeing his actions merely as a matter of convenience, in getting rid of witnesses or profit-seekers, who are riding on the wave of their notoriety. A chilling insight about the character of Charles (and indirectly, Kit) is the fact that he suffered from an inferiority complex, and stated that through the murders of Caril’s family he had “transcended his former self” and reached another plane of existence, outside and beyond the law.
What makes Badlands special is its singular, dreamlike atmosphere and detail, not to mention the beautiful cinematography. Martin and Sissy are both natural in their roles; Martin was cast despite being too old for the role, so they changes the script in order for him to take part. Malick has directed only five feature films over 40 years, and has an enigmatic public persona; never showing up for interviews or the premieres of his films, and for a non-compromising attitude towards his art. It was lucky that Malick was given artistic freedom, in which the film could develop at its own pace; for instance, with the art director Jack Fisk, he came to the conclusion that the period detail should be left to the minimum:
In conclusion, I wish you a nice weekend—here is the original trailer for the film: