Holly Sargis is a 15-year-old girl living in Fort Dupree, South Dakota in 1959. She has been raised by her father, a sign painter, and their relationship is highly strained as a result of her mother’s passing due to pneumonia. One day, Holly meets Kit Carruthers, a 25-year-old garbage collector and deeply troubled Korean War veteran. Resembling the late James Dean, Kit charms Holly and the two fall deeply in love. Though she couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, the romance is doomed to take a destructive turn.
Badlands starts innocently enough. A naïve 15-year-old falls in love with a man ten years her senior and the two begin to date. When Holly’s father finds out about her boyfriend, he makes his disapproval known. The first sign that Badlands is far from a typical romance film is when Holly’s father punctuates his point by killing her dog. Proving that this cruel act wasn’t to be an isolated incident, Kit, in a heated argument with Holly’s father, pulls out a revolver and murders him. From there, the two decide to fake their suicides and live life on the run.
The story of Badlands is fictional, but it was heavily inspired by the real-life spree killings committed by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. A teenager at the time, Starkweather murdered eleven people in Wyoming and Nebraska between December of 1957 and January of 1958. The spree started when Starkweather feuded with a service station attendant named Robert Colvert. Specifically, the attendant refused to sell him a stuffed animal on credit. After returning several times, Starkweather brandished a shotgun, forced Colvert to hand him $100 and drove the attendant to a remote area, shooting him in the head with his shotgun. Feeling he transcended his former self, he went on a murder spree until the authorities apprehended him. He was executed seventeen months later in June of 1959.
Despite Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis being inspired by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, they also bring to mind the infamous criminal couple Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow. What makes the destruction they cause so potent is the fact that they enable each other’s worst tendencies. The couple’s road trip ends up being a maelstrom of senseless violence. Martin Sheen commands every single scene he’s in and you will want to hear what he has to say next. It’s when you take the time to dissect exactly what he’s saying that you realize his character is a complete psychopath. What’s particularly perturbing about Kit’s murder spree is how unpredictable he manages to be. He resorts to increasingly flimsier justifications for his actions, yet he doesn’t quite mindlessly murder everyone who gets in his way. Sometimes he does, but other times, he pointedly leaves people alive; he clearly loves the game of cat and mouse between him and the authorities.
What is particularly striking about the narrative of Badlands is that it’s an exercise in contrasts. One of the first things that is sure to get one’s attention on their first viewing is the cinematography. Even as early as his debut effort, Mr. Malick proved to be a master of capturing the natural beauty of the American landscape. The breathtaking backdrop is then superimposed upon a narrative about a remorseless killer. The juxtaposition between the tranquil, natural beauty and the manmade catastrophe that is Kit’s murder spree is a clever one.
Complementing the events of the films is Holly’s own narrated account. Without context, one would be led to believe Badlands is a dime-a-dozen, insipid harlequin romance film. Her account has all the basic affectations of the subgenre – the young, troubled girl next door falls in love with the bad boy and the two start a romance that is met with disapproval by her peers. To her, this may as well be Romeo and Juliet. When you see the action unfold onscreen, it’s plain that Holly is completely delusional. Even if she doesn’t personally murder anyone, she is in many ways worse than Kit given that she is happy to see this story to its conclusion rather than call the police on him as a normal person would do. There’s no real evidence that Kit actively groomed her into becoming something of his liking. Notably, when he murders her father, she doesn’t have much of an emotional reaction, suggesting she’s just as warped as he is. In short, there was no need to condition her to become a murderer’s girlfriend; she seemed destined to be one from the beginning.
What strikes me the most about the violence is how sadistic it is. This isn’t to say that Kit shoots every one of his intended victims ten times in the head every time. Instead, he goes in the opposite direction. He has a tendency of wounding his victims and letting Death’s cold grip take them away. It’s quite a bit more disturbing than if he were to shoot them in the head once – at least that way, the suffering is cut short. However, most of Kit’s victims are clearly seen breathing after they’re shot. This means he could show some degree of humanity by getting them medical attention. Yet he never does – and, tellingly, neither does Holly.
Sadly for Holly, all good things must come to an end. She eventually grows tired of life on the run and turns herself in. The police pursue Kit and arrest him with surprisingly little resistance offered on his part. Even after being told that he will be executed for his actions, he still manages to be the same charismatic psychopath he has always been, cracking jokes with his arresting officers. Despite being an enabler, Holly receives probation and even marries the son of her defense attorney. The most shocking revelation, however, is that before being sent to the chair, Kit donates his body to science. Was it a newfound sense of altruism? Did he simply feel that doing so would allow him to live beyond his death? It’s difficult to speculate exactly what goes through the head of a person with such an alien morality, isn’t it?
Badlands has been considered something of a companion piece to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Though it’s certainly an apt comparison given the subject matter, I think I would also draw parallels to Jean-Luc Godard’s debut film, Breathless. His work helped jumpstart the French New Wave along with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and is one of the most beloved films of all time. However, I have to say that Breathless relied too heavily on its style, which caused the story to suffer. It was jarring how characters would just do things with no buildup or higher motivation. In other words, it was an attempt at minimalistic storytelling and the director ultimately didn’t get enough mileage out of his film’s few moving parts.
I say this because I feel Mr. Malick crafted Badlands in a similar manner, and I have to remark that his attempt was far more successful than Mr. Godard’s. The characters of Breathless did things with no rhyme or reason, and while the narrative doesn’t truly delve into what drives Holly and Kit in Badlands, it places the onus on the audience to examine the underlying implications for themselves. On top of having much better editing, I like to think of Badlands as the superior take on what Breathless tried to do. Badlands could very well be the most celebrated American directorial debut along with Citizen Kane, and it’s an experience I would dub essential to anyone even passingly interested in the medium.
Final Score: 7/10