Michael Armstrong on Terence Malick’s directorial debut Badlands
Sometimes, less is more. This little truism is demonstrated to great effect in Terrence Malick’s debut film Badlands. In this eerie tale of a couple on the run, there is no convoluted plot, overwritten dialogue or barnstorming performance. What makes it special is a commitment to subtlety in all aspects of filmmaking.
Malick is famed for his J.D. Salinger-esque privacy and his skill in crafting only brilliant films, including Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Like an author who only writes great novels, his resume makes light reading, but throughout his career there has been a commitment to quality over quantity.
Badlands is based on the true story of a 1950s killing spree that crossed two states and claimed dozens of lives. Martin Sheen plays Kit, a James Dean-wannabe who drifts from town to town working menial jobs and avoiding the law. A chance encounter with Holly (Sissy Spacek), a fifteen year-old South Dakota high school student, leads to a passionate and destructive romance. Warren Oates plays Holly’s father, and a violent confrontation between him and Kit soon forces the couple to go on the run. Kit’s trigger-happy nature, however, soon leads to several murders, so to escape punishment they try to make it to the relative sanctuary of the mountains of Montana.
The genius of Badlands is that it uses this deceptively simple plot to bring you closer to truly disturbing characters, and shines a critical light on the love of the outlaw in 1950s America. Kit is the catalyst for the destruction of Holly and her father’s serene suburban life. He is no force of nature though, nor a murderous psychopath, but simply doesn’t fit into that way of life, and resorts to killing with only a shallow understanding of its consequences. Sheen’s spectacular performance ensures that we never fear him, but rather we fear for the people he comes into contact with, and this is an important, if delicate distinction. It is worth noting that this subtlety was missing in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and comparing the two films only underlines the cheap and tacky answers found in Stone’s effort.
Much more disturbing is the character of Holly, who appears numb to the brutality of Kit’s methods. When questioned, she defends him with all the zealousness of puppy love, and while a lesser film would have put this down to a childlike innocence, Badlands opts for a more unsettling alternative. The death of one particular character underlines her complicity in his actions, as she reacts not with the horror of a child, or the revulsion of an adult, but with anger towards Kit. To her, he has simply screwed up her plan for how things were meant to play out, but she remains by his side, and becomes desensitized to his subsequent murders.
They descend into a feral lifestyle in a frighteningly short time, living first in the woods and then in their car as they drive through evocative and beautifully captured landscapes. Malick uses music to great effect in enhancing the story, highlighting their child-like qualities, the unchanging boredom of suburbia and the emotion at the heart of their relationship. In spite of all these rich and at times conflicting themes, by the end you care what happens to Kit and Holly, and even become fond of Kit’s charm and his legend-in-his-own-mirror pronouncements. Only after the ending do the more difficult questions posed by the film re-emerge, making the experience of Badlands one that stays in the memory, a credit to the work of one of cinema’s visionary directors.