Catching Up With: Badlands – 1973

“I can’t say that Im sorry for the things that we done,
At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun.”

Those words are not from “Badlands,” the film that announced filmmaker/nature enthusiast/recluse on steroids Terence Malick to the world. They are from “Nebraska” the Bruce Springsteen song that, like the film, was inspired by Charlie Starkweather, the Nebraska teenager who killed nearly a dozen people along  with his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, in 1957, before he was captured and executed.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is a few years older than Starkweather, but his story is essentially the same. Slumming it as a garbage man in South Dakota, he meets Holly (Sissy Spacek) a bored, 15-year-old baton enthusiast who is immediately attracted to Kit’s James Dean fixation. It doesn’t take long for them to dispose of Holly’s disapproving father, burn down her house and hit the road, leaving a wake of bodies behind them.

The quieter, more contemplative cousin of Arthur Penn’s explosive 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Badlands” is one of film’s most confident and striking debuts, with Malick’s fixations on nature, sin and the smallness of human fate opposed to the cosmos firmly in place, despite the pulpy nature of this crime story. Malick has broken away from narrative structure in the years since, but he still leaves plenty of room for the story to play out through his philosophical, lyrical lens.

The casting of Kit and Holly is the first unusual thing about “Badlands.” Sheen and Spacek were both much older than the characters they played. But I think Malick realized that and it adds to their performances. Kit, who spends his days in this dead South Dakota town pick up garbage, likens himself as a rebel, with his ever-present comb, cold, gravelly voice and the calculated swagger he puts into every step he takes. He’s a rebel desperately searching for a cause. Holly is the same way. Her reddish-blonde hair, her long be-freckled face and the general malaise she feels, which is related to us in voiceover, signify a girl who has literally outgrown being a teenager, at least in her eyes. She twirls her baton in the front yard, perhaps for a routine that will never even come. Kit sees her and is instantly drawn to her, and she to him. Dangerous boys have always been just the thing to get teenage girls out of the suburbs, which Holly’s commandeering father (Warren Oates) knows all to well. Kit shoots and kills Holly’s father and manufacture their own outlaw myth.

In the aforementioned “Bonnie and Clyde,” those Depression-era lovebirds were stand-ins for the ’60s counter-culture, and they turned all of their robberies and murders into their own private Woodstock festivals of non-conformity devolving into psychopathy. “Badlands,” and Kit and Holly’s relationship, is more complicated than the former’s. Kit and Holly’s relationship isn’t all that romantic, at least not in a traditional way (one could write thousands of words on this, but I’ll spare whoever does end up reading this). Sometimes it feels like they see each other as a means to an end. Kit likes having someone who buys his discount version of Dean’s aura, and Holly is dragged out of the South Dakota doldrums by this man of danger. Their outlaw descent is how they get off. They don’t enjoy sex all that much. They only have a few moments of youthful grace, like when they build a treehouse and dance along to the lusty bounce of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange.” Are they just sociopaths who take all their excitement from the pain of others (like when they camp out at a millionaire’s house and them shoot him and his maid through a locked door)? Or is this a comment on the death of the ’60s, with the hope and magic of the counter-culture rotted black by Altamont tragedy and the dog days of Vietnam? 

Malick, and the brilliant, career-making performances by Spacek and Sheen, are too good to let any obvious indicators of an allegory dominate the quiet menace of “Badlands.” Along with Tak Fujimoto’s gorgeous cinematography and the lush, ironically jubilant score by George Tipton (pieces of which Tony Scott used in his Quentin Tarantino collabo “True Romance,” also a story of criminals in love), “Badlands” is a complete vision of youthful exuberance curdled into malice. From the opening, awkward courtship to Kit and Holly’s final waltz in the darkness to a mournful Nat King Cole ballad as law enforcement, and by extension the real world, close in on them, “Badlands” was the arrival of a monumental talent, putting a meditative spin on the outlaw myth, which is as endless as the Western sky. 

Grade: A

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