Overview: The chilling account of a twenty-something man and his teen lover who go on a road trip killing spree. Based on the Starkweather/Fugate murders of 1958. Warner Brothers; 1973; Rated R; 95 Minutes
Our Tour Guide: Holly is as she describes herself: A little girl who had “never been popular in school and didn’t have a lot of personality… Born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live.” That is what’s so unsettling about her. Normalcy. Just a standard, baton twirling, light skinned teen. Her voiceover narration supplements the action presented by an objective camera, her words slipping back and forth between prose poetry and run-of-the-mill teen musings. Sissy Spacek’s even tone and sharp accent breathe a different kind of life into this Hollywood-familiar story template. Her blinding admiration and subservience serve as the uncomfortable crux at which the two impulses of film trope intersect honestly (the murderous outlaws and the teen romance).
Kitt: The movie isn’t shy about the physical archetype from which Kitt is constructed—beyond the impersonation through hair, tight jeans, and t-shirt, Kitt is twice directly compared to James Dean in the film (once adoringly by Holly , and later by astonished police officers). But there is something distorted and crooked about Martin Sheen’s James Dean emulation. Something in his jerky motions, his stiff gait, and the crooked, twisted posture established when Kitt shoves his hands into his back pockets. It’s a perversion of the familiar, a distinct ugliness. Even with all of his violence, it is his detached cold observations that are most distressing: “I’ll give you a dollar if you eat this Collie,” he offers a coworker as he kneels next to a dead dog. “You’re a redhead,” he coldly observes of Holly on an early follow-up date. He then points out a bag left in the road, and the mess that would be made if everyone in the town did that. How strange an observation for a young man on the verge of a massive murder spree. Later, after he and Holly have sex for the first time, he suggests bashing their hands with a rock to commemorate the event, a telling example of his inability to untangle violence from normal life and happiness.
Our Perspective: As the crime spree stretches out from South Dakota to Montana, Terrence Malick is in no hurry to provide reasons, understanding, or solution to the violence. Instead, Malick investigates violence as a part of the natural world rather than as a moral or immoral construct (a theme he would revisit in heavy doses in The Thin Red Line). The shots of the dead Collie, the dying cow, and the decision of Holly’s father to shoot her dog in punishment: death and murder, one of the same, the significance contextually framed within the lyrical landscape shots.
Overall: Badlands marks a fresh debut, a standout movie from a standout moment, an exercise in film as poetry, philosophy, and story.