Directed by Terrence Malick
Badlands is very similar to another road trip film made around the same time, Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express. In both cases, a young couple is on the run, their escape demanding a police pursuit and a media frenzy.
They’re both amusing at times, too, but Badlands feels like a much more tragic film. That’s not just because Martin Sheen’s Kit is on a murderous rampage, but because the whole story is narrated like a fairy tale by Kit’s lover, Holly (Sissy Spacek). Just a teenager when he sweeps her off her feet, Holly discusses their time together like you would remember fondly any old relationship, even as this one turns violent.
Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome that keeps her around, or maybe it’s her genuine attraction to Kit’s James Dean good looks. He gets away with so much not because of the content of his character but because of his celebrity good looks. Eventually Kit is caught, and Holly too, but she continues to speak of him with stars in her eyes. When she tells us that he was eventually executed by the state, her wistful words become a eulogy, and we’re asked to look upon Kit with the same good will she offered up to him for so long.
Badlands isn’t just another anti-hero story, even though that characterization was likely more of an outlier in 1973 than it is now. If other movies and programs (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.) ask us to identify with the flawed protagonist, this film asks us to examine why we might look up to someone like Kit. Is it just because this is a movie, and our relationship with a movie hero is to root for them? Or is it because Kit resembles James Dean? To boil it down, Kit is only what we want him to be. We see the man we want to see, not the man he really is.
Holly does the same thing, speaking of him affectionately even as she describes the awful things he does. In a way she is simply detached from her lover, looking at him from above with some kind of distant affection. She is half self-aware and half under his spell. The only reason she remains with him is because she still sees the man she wants him to be.
Terrence Malick is most well-known for a heightened visual style, marked by wide angle lenses that explore a particular landscape, with breathy voice over ruminating on life’s biggest questions. I’d argue that this easily parodied style works in The Tree of Life (2011) but less so in Knight of Cups (2015), though both films require another viewing.
Badlands shows some of these inquiries into life as a mystery. There are beautiful shots that linger on the vast, pastoral landscape and some voice over in which Holly brings up questions as to the nature of her existence with Kit. At one point she tells him that this is no way to live, though the film never explores what is the right way to live.
Early in the film and in their run from the law, Kit and Holly form a quiet existence in nature, complete with a fort and Home Alone-style booby traps for when the cops come. It’s hard to see this as anything but imaginary, like the characters in Where the Wild Things Are. Since this is all from Holly’s perspective, it’s easy to imagine that this is something misremembered, dramatized to portray these grand feelings.
They’re just kids, in the grand scheme of things, and though the film never tries to glorify their run from the law, it does let Holly glorify it. In that sequence, maybe we will too, as the film brings us deep into Holly’s psyche, but when she distances herself from Kit, so must we. The illusion is shattered.
Maybe Malick is just trying to explore the different ways in which we can live, outside of the self-inflicted confines of modern day life. And maybe he’s showing that this too has a downside. Maybe we’d be wrong to live like Kit, but we’re likely also wrong to live the way we presently do. In one moment of the film, Holly explains that Kit had a justification for killing people in order to continue to avoid getting caught. He said it’s okay if it served their escape, but then he also explained that you had to be willing to accept the consequences if eventually caught, which he is.
And Kit never tries to skirt those consequences. He even turns himself in, ending a police chase prematurely when he shoots out his own tire. Holly wonders if he just grew tired of the run, of this way of life, and based on what we’re shown, that might be true.
I suppose my lasting impressions of the film are that Kit lived honestly, even in his own, twisted way. He knew what he wanted, to an extent, and he was prepared to accept the repercussions of that way of life. The film never attempts to glorify his lifestyle, at least from my vantage point, but it does celebrate him to some extent. It celebrates his capture as much as his flight, and the film celebrates his refusal to compromise anything.
Or does it. I think it does. When the film ends, I felt like I was supposed to admire Kit. The cops even admired him, with one of them shaking his shackled hand before sending him off. Kit is sick, and the ways he’s admired have more to do with his deception, his charm than with Kit himself. Perhaps the film is simply pointing out the ways we glorify someone like Kit. It’s not unlike Bonnie and Clyde, or Jesse James or John Dillinger. These figures break through something in our society, and even if what they do is horrible, our tendency is to put them on some kind of pedestal.
And young Martin Sheen does kind of look like James Dean.