“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.”
Terrence Malick’s Badlands has a certain unique beauty unlike any other film, undercut only by the violence the two protagonists take part in, and even that violence has a hard time covering up the beauty. The film begins with our narrator, Holly, played shockingly believable by Sissy Spacek, as she strokes her Great Dane while both lying on her bed. This is a shot before innocence lost, before a chance encounter occurs that leads to the end of her childhood. She tells us about her past, seemingly unimportant facts, which in a way tells us exactly who she is.
We cut to Kit, played by Martin Sheen, as he collects garbage. Kit is not bright, in fact, he is clearly socially-challenged. He wishes he were James Dean, he thinks he is the definition of cool. As the film moves forward and our “heroes” meet, we see what could become a love story, and while we are to believe there is love on the surface, this is not love. This is manipulation, and immaturity. Kit, on one hand, is mentally disturbed, yet we don’t see this right away, but as the killings begin we see he is not doing this for love, but solely for a need to do so. He is not angry nor is he doing this to stay with his new-found love, instead he is using her as an excuse to kill.
Holly, on the other hand, is not guilty of action, but rather inaction. To say she is passive is an understatement. She lacks emotion, lacks personality, and any sort of morality. You would think a film with characters as negative as these would be uninteresting or depressing, instead it is beautiful. We see these people leave society and enter the wilderness, the vast empty landscapes of mid-America. Without true personalities, they draw their ability to interact from the world around them. The killing spree they take part in is, in a sense, one to push their relationship as they need an outside force to let them continue.
Before the killings take place, as their empty relationship begins to cement, we see Kit lying in Holly’s bed. It is nighttime, she is nowhere to be seen. He lies awake, thinking, he appears giant in her bed, his limbs hanging off. He is an adult, stuck in the mindset of a child. He takes the childhood away from this kid who was from a loving home, unable to return her to what she once was, he runs away with her, killing along the way.
Unlike other Malick films that flow poetically, here, he lets the film meander. The characters move place to place, staying as they want and leaving once they get bored. Unfortunately, this becomes too little to sustain their relationship and it begins to disappear. Resentment sets in for Holly, as she thinks back to what she could have had, what her future husband is doing. However, she never appears to feel bad for what they have done.
Badlands, released in 1972, rarely shows its age, and never with the emotions or story. While the film focuses almost entirely on the two main characters, we do see the country’s reaction in the background. Mass hysteria sets in, terrified of these young murderers coming to their towns. The film shows how people react to such infamy, and this is no different than it would be to a celebrity. People want to know him, they want his things, to be around him.
Terrence Malick’s Badlands is from 1972 and it takes place in the 1950s, yet, it could easily be about today. It is as relevant today as the day it was released, if not more. Malick’s films concentrate on universal themes, even in a film about serial killers, we still see things we can relate to.