Terence Malick is far from my favorite director. To me, he’s 90% hype and 10% artistry (please direct all hate mail to IDontLikeTerenceMalick@gmail.com). However, I gave his début film, Badlands a shot because of its prevalent spot on “best movies ever” lists. Badlands is an understated, disturbing film about alienation and obsession with celebrity anchored by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. The movie isn’t for everyone – it’s a Malick film regardless – but of the work of his I’ve seen, Badlands is the best.
Kit (Sheen) and Holly (Spacek) are two youths living in 1950s South Dakota. When Kit meets Holly he becomes obsessively enamored with her to the point of convincing her to go on a killing spree with him (after killing her father, naturally). As the two traverse the Dakota badlands, they learn about life and death.
Badlands is the film to show Malick’s understated way of directing; a theme he’s gone on a tear with since, leaving any sort of substance out of events. Badlands gives you an intense, prosaic coming-of-age film where, by the end, the movie neither condemns nor glorifies the characters actions and neither do you. For a classic film fan, Badlands eviscerates the myth of 1950s America; Happy Days this is not! Kit and Holly live in a town where people with no education have no prospects – Kit is a garbage collector, a cast-off himself collecting the cast-offs of others. Holly may be a 15-year-old girl, but she’s living the same blissful, bored ignorance as everyone else in the town.
The only god the two believe in is Hollywood. Kit emulates James Dean in his look and dress, while Holly (a shortened “Hollywood”) devours movie magazines. Holly, especially, watches her life as a movie with James Dean (personified by Kit) as her co-star. Both have these delusions of grandeur with Holly eventually losing her soul. To them, Hollywood is an escape; a state of mind to enter into when things get bad, and a destination they can dream of reaching where all their dreams come true. As we see too often in standard Hollywood stories, the two end up losing their lives in the pursuit of a Hollywood dream. Malick isn’t reinventing the wheel with the themes and motifs he’s talking about. The moment the first body hits the floor, Kit and Holly enter a whirlwind movie of their making with themselves entering the amalgamation of fact and fiction as embodied within the movie magazines.
Glamorizing Hollywood is common in films, as is the concept that violence is bred in the home. It’s a brief moment, but Malick brings to the audiences’ attention that Holly’s repressed violent nature starts with her father, who kills the family dog in a fit of anger. The few moments of violence in the movie have their own quiet precision to them, and Kit and Holly act cavalier about them. When Kit kills Holly’s father, he dumps the man’s body in the basement and brings back up a toaster; he discards something dead and brings back something he believes has value and usability. Holly gets mad at Kit, but she’s never hysterical or particularly upset about what has happened. Both are so numb to violence that it’s not surprising that they can take the life of others. Kit comes off as especially dangerous due to his lack of remorse: “That’s what it was like…pop!” He, too, describes events in a visual sense like watching a movie. He explains what he sees, not what he feels.
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek have talent individually, but together this is their masterpiece. Spacek’s Holly narrates in a heartless, unemotional way; she’s emotionally immature, passive, and childlike. The ultimate good girl gone bad, Holly goes from the sweet girl twirling a baton in the street, to an emotionally dead shell of a human being. Being only fifteen, Holly believes her life with Kit is destined and she won’t give up that notion or else it destroys her movie star dreams. Martin Sheen gives the performance of a lifetime as Kit; the fastidious anal-retentive mass murderer is compelled to control events as he sees fit. He’s a man’s man but Holly falls for the image, not the person. Beneath the machismo and sexual virility is a broken, frightening sociopath. When he’s planning to leave, he never asks Holly to go with him; he stars packing her clothes in an unspoken command that she’s coming with him. The movie never speaks of it, but you have to wonder if Holly didn’t go, whether he’d have any compunction with killing her. To Kit, a gun is simply the means to eliminating obstacles or things (people mostly) that he believes have no value. By the end, when the cops finally surround the duo, you watch that façade of Kit’s finally crack; a cop fires his gun and Kit noticeable flinches. Kit isn’t the movie star idol of Holly’s dreams, nor the remorseless killer we’ve seen; he’s a scared little boy.
Badlands is a fascinating character study on life, violence, and Hollywood itself. The script is profound and philosophical, combined with the exquisite imagery that’ Malick has become known for. The performances by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are the best of their careers. This is easily my favorite of Malick’s oeuvre.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.