Badlands (1973) Review – A Short Narrative Study

Badlands offers a tragic character study of a bored, deadbeat 25 year old man in the American back country of South Dakota, who seizes a moment spurred on by a chance encounter with love to live out his dreams of taking what he wants when he wants it, and killing whoever tries to stop him.

Re-imagining the true events of the Charles Starkweather killing spree throughout Nebraska and Wyoming in January 1958, Writer and Director Terrence Malick brings a stark realism to the psychological descent of charismatic psychopath Kit (Martin Sheen). As well as insight into the corrupting power of love that we find in his girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) based on Starkweather’s real life girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

As Malicks first film, the funding for Badlands was limited and unstable. Malick likened the financial process of the production to that of a Broadway play, receiving investments on a limited partnership agreement from a lot of investors who didn’t know one another. However, the approximate, low budget of $300,000 also lends to the artistic outcome of the film. Malick’s vision wasn’t extravagant, he hoped to keep the 1950’s setting to a bare minimum, and this gritty, raw, and often unstable atmosphere is a key component and ally to the films themes of morality, teen lust and boredom in small town America. The film received commercial success that caused Warner Bros to buy distribution rights for three times the films budget.

The story is narrated by Holly, a 15 year old baton twirling schoolgirl who lives a sheltered, shackled existence at home with her widowed Father. Holly is liberated from this life and propelled into freedom paired with extreme danger when she falls in love with Kit, the iconic bad boy who is also looking for a ticket out of an isolated existence. Holly narrates as Kit steals, burns and kills their way through Dakota to the Badlands of Montana, in a love struck rampage akin to Bonnie and Clyde.

The pair fit loosely into place, as we can see from the opening shots, they are both lonely, discontented people on opposite ends of teen angst living in a quiet town. We see Kit at work throwing garbage, where he exhibits his boredom and skittish attention span that reoccur throughout the film and take violent shape in his bashful series of murders and robberies. Kit rummages through bins and dares his boss to eat a dead dog with the same emotional disconnect that allows him to pull the trigger on several occasions. By comparison, Holly is shown in her dimly lit room with the sun shining in through the window as she plays with her dog and narrates to the audience how she and her father moved from Texas to Dakota in an attempt to start over.

The pair have immediate chemistry upon a chance meeting; Kit lays his eyes on a diamond in the rough, and Holly finds a James Dean lookalike from the wrong side of the tracks that could add flavour to her life.  This moment for both characters is a watershed in their lives, their curiosity in each other overwhelms them and drives them to leave town in search for a new home that is more accepting of their love. First, Kit must cut the only tie they had to their small town of Fort Dupree: Holly’s father. In the first of Kit’s murders his blood lust is established, along with the dynamic between Kit and Holly, as he acts on impulse for the both of them, with Holly left to do nothing but stick by her man.

Burning down the house with the body inside and leaving behind a foreshadowing record that plays their suicide notice recorded by Kit, the two escape in Holly’s dad’s car out to the wilderness where they live off of the land in hiding. Here, the pair regress to an almost biblical Garden of Eden setting where we see the best of Malick’s picturesque, organic setting. Wide open fields, abundant forests and flowing rivers against the backdrop of blue skies and idyllic sun rises and falls make for Kit and Holly’s sanctuary that they weaponised with booby traps and hideouts for when the authorities eventually come for them.

Their life on the run sees them driving in the approximate direction of Montana, stealing supplies that are both necessary and materialistic, they appear to live out the perfect runaway fantasy, until Holly becomes alienated by Kit’s rapidly declining sanity and realises the impracticality of falling in love with a maniac, claiming: ‘I made up by mind to never again hang out with the hell-bent type, no matter how in love with him I was’.

Kit’s first and final run in with the law sees him give himself up in a car chase after gaining the upper hand and appearing to be home free. This scene encapsulates Kit’s desire throughout the film to build a name for himself, for his spree and legend to go down in the history books.

Throughout the film, Sheen plays Kit with a twisted playfulness and an enticing, disarming charisma that allows him to absorb himself into the psychology of a killer. Kit is able to live out a childhood fantasy of being a damsel’s hero, something he finds progressively exhilarating the harder it gets. From hunting for fish, building a booby-trapped tree fort, and being in a car chase dressed in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, much of his actions show him as a thrill seeker who has let his imagination run wild into reality.

The film is most overtly a story outside of time. While the 1950’s American setting is unmistakable, the narrative of a forbidden, reckless love is one that has been told over and over and Badlands is a stunning contemporary example of how to variate on a theme. Borrowing from real life events and combining fantastic camerawork, scripting and acting, Malick invites the audience to invest themselves in the many questions that the film raises, or just to be enticed along for the ride.

 

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