★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek) lives with her father (Warren Oates) in South Dakota and the family of two lead a typical 1950s suburban existence. Kit (Martin Sheen), a garbageman, notices Holly from a distance and approaches her. Despite being ten years her senior, she welcomes the flirtation because the attention, potentially a romantic one, excites her. Spending time with Kit feels fresh and exciting because it means distance from books, boredom, and a father who does not seem to pay much attention to her. Eventually, Kit and Holly, convinced that they are in love, hit the road. As they head toward the badlands of Montana, they leave corpses in their wake.
“Badlands,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, tells the lovers’ romance not through a typical character arc but through the lands they touch and interact with. The film begins in a lively suburb with people in the streets as they converse, play, and buy groceries–typical as can be–and it ends in a barren terrain of rock and sandy dryness where not a soul can be seen for miles.
The narration is effectively executed. Since it is not shown that the couple engages in meaningful conversations other than superficial proclamations that they care for one another, Holly’s words via narration, almost in a state of daydream, make us aware that she has real thoughts about a lifestyle of constantly being uprooted because she and Kit are on the run from the law. Even though she rarely shows it, perhaps because of an unrealized fear toward her partner in crime, she feels some guilt toward the people they come across, most of which die for no good reason other than for a rush of adrenaline.
Her guilt and disapproval of Kit’s methods are expressed when she tells him that he is one of the most trigger-happy persons she has ever met. Because the story moves at a purposeful slow pace, we are given time to wonder whether Kit, when shooting his gun, imagines pointing his weapon at empty tin cans instead of something that has consciousness and feels pain. He often expresses an immediate ecstasy when the trigger is pressed and the bullet is released just as a tyro shooter would in a shooting range.
The film bestows many memorable images for those willing to look hard enough. As much as I was tickled from watching Kit stepping on a diseased, or possibly deceased, cow or the way he wraps his arms around a shotgun as he stares at the distant lonely moon amidst a refulgent sky, I adored the scenes when Kit just looks at his girl with complete contentment. His happiness may not always be congruent to his girl’s peace of mind, but we get the feeling that he will do anything to protect and provide for her.
Injecting genuine humanity in killer is a big risk and is not always done right. Here, since the writer-director is adamant about not judging his characters through hackneyed plot devices like karma or unexpected twists, almost everything works.
Inspired by the real-life murder spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, “Badlands” is akin to watching a poem unfold with magic embedded in small moments. It finds honesty in the tragic disillusionment of young love.