It’s hard to watch Terence Malik’s Badlands (1973) without using 2014 eyes. Instead of just seeing Kit, the main character, you automatically think: “Oh my god, look how young Martin Sheen is!” Same with Holly, the main female character: “Sissy Spacek looks like she is twelve years old!” The one I struggled with the most was: “This movie feels like another ‘couple on a killing spree’ movie cliché.” But then I have to remind myself that most ‘couple on a killing spree’ movies came after 1973.
And it’s not fair for me to say that Badlands is a cliché, or that it created the cliché. But it is very hard to watch without making comparisons. Holly (Spacek) is a fifteen year old girl growing up with her single father in a small town in South Dakota in the 1950s, the story is told through her eyes using voice over narration. She meets Kit (Sheen) who she almost ambivalently falls in love with. He’s a “greaser” who drifts from job to job until he sees Holly walking down the street.
Holly’s involvement still feels detached as their relationship progresses,. They fall in love because they are together a lot, they have sex, they hang out. Then, Holly’s father forbids them from seeing each other and sends Holly to clarinet lessons to keep her busy, and she seems OK with that. Kit, however, is not. After unsuccessfully trying to change Holly’s father’s mind, Kit comes to the house and starts packing Holly’s suitcase. When her father intervenes, Kit shoots him.
Kit and Holly set her house on fire and run. They hide in the wilderness, building tree houses and stealing chickens until they are discovered. There is a shootout and Kit and Holly are on the run again. They try and hide out with one of Kit’s friends but when he tries to turn them in, they shoot him too. They end up at a rich man’s home for a few hours. I love the scene where Holly moves from chair to chair, as if she is testing each one, like she has never been in such an opulent environment before.
Kit appears very calculating, almost like he is writing a script. He is charming, loves being compared to James Dean, and at the end allows himself to be caught like he is playing a scene in a movie. He charms the marshals who have tracked him down and we do see a nice moment where he re-charms Holly, where she suddenly remembers why she was drawn to him in the first place.
Holly moves through the movie with a wide-eyed detachment. When her father is lying on the floor shot, she just stares at him and asks if they can help him. She accompanies Kit on this adventure with the same enthusiasm that any teenager approaches a family car trip. Toward the end she is tired of camping out, tired of running. She wants to leave Kit, they are being cornered by a helicopter in the Badlands of Montana. Kit, still writing his script, tells her to meet him on New Year’s Eve 1964, and she just shrugs her shoulders. Damn kids today.
Malik has said that he thought of Kit and Holly’s journey as a fairy tale. And there is that quality. Kit and Holly live in the wild, kind of like the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, unaware the consequences of the real world pressing in on them. They are on a journey of sorts, their ultimate destination is Montana and they have to make it through the Badlands first.
I think what I wanted from this movie was more passion. Maybe it was my 2014 eyes again. Holly’s wide-eyed reaction to everything left me wanting more. Where’s the grief for her father? Where’s the heat? They should be ripping each other’s clothes off, right? She should be wanting to die with him—double decker bus and all that. But her ambivalence becomes mine and I can’t help but want more from my ‘couple on a killing spree’ movies. And sure, maybe it’s just two sociopaths falling in love, but teenage love should have more angst, I’m just saying.