Badlands (1973) is the remarkable and impressive directorial debut from twenty-nine year old director Terrence Malick (who also scripted and produced the film). [Malick's first scripted film Pocket Money (1972) was just a year earlier.]
Malick's independent film's engaging story about a delinquent duo was loosely based and inspired by the Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate mass murders (eleven in total, including his accomplice girlfriend's mother, stepfather and 2 year-old sister) of 1958 in Lincoln, Nebraska and Colorado. [Nineteen year old, James Dean-fixated Starkweather was joined by his fourteen year-old girlfriend during their nine-day flight. Once apprehended, Starkweather was electrocuted for his crimes on June 25, 1958 and Fugate was sentenced to a life sentence - although she was released on parole after 18 years.] Their exploits were first fictionalized in the film The Sadist (1963), and then displayed in the 1993 TV docudrama Murder in the Heartland. Their spree also inspired Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers (1994).
This unique, coming-of-age crime film with its intense and prosaic character study of the two leads, without clearly condemning or praising their horrific and pathological actions, is carefully and realistically photographed at a leisurely pace by Tak Fujimoto. As a title, Badlands is both a geographic area and a descriptive indictment of the senseless behaviors (and empty interiors) of the two juveniles. The film received no Academy Award nominations.
Only a few other directors have done so well with their debut film - e.g., Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941), Delbert Mann with Marty (1955), Jerome Robbins with West Side Story (1961), Steven Spielberg with Sugarland Express (1973) (another lovers-on-the-run film), Robert Redford with Ordinary People (1980), James L. Brooks with Terms of Endearment (1983), Kevin Costner with Dances with Wolves (1990), and Sam Mendes with American Beauty (1999).
The intelligent, understated, alienating and disturbing film, set in the waning years of the highly-romanticized 50's decade, is narrated in a flat, heartless, unsensational monotone voice by the film's emotionally-immature, passive, childlike and naive 15 year-old character named Holly. [Her sleepy, descriptive narration, sometimes uncomprehending of what is happening to her, is probably delivered as a retrospective, nostalgic reflection some months or years later, or as a running commentary, or as mundane quotes from her daily journal. Her imperfect memory and her addiction to mindless movie magazines influence the tone of her version of events.] She accompanies the rebellious, aimless anti-hero killer Kit, an inarticulate James Dean look-alike and ex-garbage collector, on a senseless homicidal spree from her small South Dakota hometown. One of the film's posters described the alienated, unstable and banal young couple who ensure their immortality through unplanned or unintentional murders:
He was 25 years old - He combed his hair like James Dean - He was very fastidious - People who littered bothered him -
She was 15 - She took music lessons and could twirl a baton - She wasn't very popular at school - For awhile they lived together in a tree house.
In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.
Many other films since the mid-30s have told the tale of two estranged young fugitives who are mad lovers (amour fou) on the run - Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, Persons in Hiding (1938) with Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish, Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949) with Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, the ultimate B-picture Gun Crazy (1949) with John Dall and Peggy Cummins, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972) starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974) - a remake of Ray's film with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, Guncrazy (1992) starring Drew Barrymore and James LeGros, Tony Scott's True Romance (1993) (that borrowed George Tipton's score from this film), and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994) with Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson.The Story
Before the credits, the film opens with a view of lonely 15 year-old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) playing with her pet dog on her bed, as she speaks in a voice-over flashback about how she was transplanted from Texas to South Dakota with her single father. Without many friends, she considers herself a "little stranger" in her father's eyes:
My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral, he gave it to the yardman. He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. Then, one day, hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all his memories, he moved us from Texas to Ft. Dupree, South Dakota.
Various shots show the empty streets and subdued, quiet life in the South Dakota town. Holly's soon-to-be partner in crime, 25 year-old Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), wearing a tight white T-shirt and blue jeans, appears on his early rounds collecting garbage on a dump truck in the quiet town of Ft. Dupree. [Garbage collection is an obvious metaphor for the uneducated youth's life that has been cast off by the culture.] He also appears next to a dog (of an unspecified breed), but the animal is dead and lying on the ground. Freckle-faced Holly appears once again (wearing white short-shorts and a navy blue shirt) in the middle of a deserted street near her house while practicing the twirling of a baton, as she innocently comments in voice-over:
Little did I realize that what began in the alleys and backways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.
Later in the day, in one of the town's back alleys while collecting trash with fellow garbage man Cato (Ramon Bieri), Kit searches through trash cans for valuable items or to satisfy his curiosity about other people's lives: "This lady don't ever pay her bills. She's gonna get in trouble if she doesn't watch out." Kit abruptly quits work (while the credits appear), strolls through a vacant alley between houses, and then crosses a street when he spots under-aged, bare-footed, baton-twirling Holly on the lawn in front of her house. He introduces himself and then requests the wall-flower's company for a walk:
Kit: Just thought I'd come over and say hello to ya. I'll try anything once....Listen, Holly, you, uh, I don't know, want to take a walk with me?
Holly: What for?
Kit: Aw, I got some stuff to say. Guess I'm kind of lucky that way. Most people don't have anything on their minds, do they? (They walk down the middle of the street.) Oh, incidentally, my last name is Carruthers. Sounds a little too much like 'druthers,' huh?
Holly: It's OK.
Kit: Ah, well, nobody asked me what I thought. They just hung it on me.
Holly: You still in school?
Kit: Nah, I have a job.
Holly: Doin' what?
Kit: Well, I don't mind getting up early, so I got a job throwing garbage. I'm not in love with the stuff, OK?
When she hears her father calling from the house in the distance, she then honestly confesses what he would say about her fraternizing with him: "I know what my daddy's gonna say...well, that I shouldn't be seen with anybody that collects garbage." She waves goodbye, and then finds her father (Warren Oates) in their backyard painting signs - his profession. When he asks about the boy's intentions, Holly lies to him while sitting in front of a large BAIT sign: "He's just asking if we need any yardwork done."
When Kit returns to his place of work, he is abruptly notified that he's been fired by his boss (Howard Ragsdale). So the unemployed, unskilled, and listless young man speaks to a clerk (Charles Fitzpatrick) in the town's job referral employment agency, and divulges how he has few prospects for his future:
Clerk: Why did you leave?
Kit: I just felt like it.
Clerk: What kind of work do you think you'd be qualified for? I just gotta get this.
Kit: I can't think of anything at the moment. I want you to write me out a slip, though, proving I came down here.
He is offered another job "working cattle over at the pens" where his cowboy boots will fit in better.
Starry-eyed Holly spies on Kit through curtains as he again approaches her house. The impressionable girl describes her instant magnetic attraction to the boy who looks like dreamy teen film idol James Dean from her movie magazines, in voice-over:
He was handsomer than anybody I'd ever met. He looked just like James Dean.
On her front porch, they engage in simple-minded small-talk and she reacts positively to his wild man (Rebel Without a Cause (1955)) image, his resemblance to James Dean in a white T-shirt, and his attentiveness:
Holly: Well, stop the world.
Kit: Hey, I quit my job.
Kit: It seemed like the right move...Well, I'm gonna work as a cowboy now... or thinking about it. It's a routine, like anything. What do you think?
Holly: I don't know.
He entices her to go on their 'first-date' with a ride into town, and suggests that she bring her homework along when she demurs. They walk down the main street of town, where Kit is fastidious [psychologically anal-retentive and controlling as well!] about trash that litters the sidewalk - possibly an acquired habit from his garbage-collecting days:
Somebody dropped a bag on the sidewalk. Everybody did that, the whole town'd be a mess.
As she nervously accompanies him, he awkwardly suggests a detestable nickname for his red-haired girl: "Red." As they return to her home in his 1949 Monarch, she agrees to have him "come around" and see her the next day. While Kit works at the feedlot in town, and throws hay to the morose-looking cattle (contrasted in a montage), the unpopular, shy, and impressionable Holly (in voice-over) describes how she fell in love with the image (rather than the reality) of the handsome, James Dean-like, white-trash drifter "from the wrong side of the tracks":
Kit went to work in the feedlot while I carried on with my studies. Little by little we fell in love. As I'd never been popular in school and didn't have a lot of personality, I was surprised that he took such a liking to me, especially when he could've had any other girl in town if he'd given it half a try. He said that I was grand, though, that he wasn't interested in me for sex and that coming from him, this was a compliment. He'd never met a fifteen year-old girl who behaved more like a grownup and wasn't giggly. He didn't care what anybody else thought. I looked good to him, and whatever I did was okay, and if I didn't have a lot to say, well, that was okay, too. (In a short segment, they play cards on a blanket under a tree next to a small river.) Of course, I had to keep all this a secret from my dad. He would've had a fit, since Kit was ten years older than me and came from the wrong side of the tracks, so called. Our time with each other was limited and each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from all the cares of the world.
At first, Kit supposedly wasn't interested in Holly for sex, but they are seen necking underneath the football field's bleachers, and then kissing some more. She has adopted his habit of cigarette smoking, and has kept their forbidden relationship a secret from her father. She realizes that they are living an idealized romance [and she is 'James Dean's' co-star in her fantasy], and that Kit acts strangely, but cannot yet acknowledge that their relationship is becoming potentially dangerous. Holly turns to Kit for consolation after the sickness and death of her pet catfish. And in an unusual gesture, Kit steps up on the carcass of a dead cow in the feedlot to test its mortality:
In the stench and slime of the feedlot, he'd remember how I looked the night before, how I ran my hand through his hair and traced the outline of his lips with my fingertip. He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms....I didn't mind telling Kit about stuff like this, cause strange things happened in his life, too, and some of the stuff he did was strange. For instance, he faked his signature whenever he used it, to keep other people from forging important papers with his name.
[Kit has illusions of his own grandiosity and mythic status, even at this early stage in the film.] Holly fantasizes about how she comforts Kit, (in a surrealistic image, he lies in bed decorated from behind with peacock feathers and next to her catfish that is gasping for breath), while wearing angelic white robes and coming to him in the middle of the night:
And as he lay in bed, in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes he'd see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes, and I'd put my cold hand on his forehead.
Down by the river's edge one day next to their tree, Holly is deflowered through sexual intercourse with Kit and then expresses her relief that she won't die a virgin. As she buttons up her clothes after the obviously unromantic and unexciting act, she casually dismisses the breaking of the sacred taboo (her under-aged deflowering by a 25 year-old), and downplays the importance of feeling passion and sexual attraction. Obviously, he hasn't satisfied her sexually with his physical manhood:
Did it go the way it was supposed to?...Is that all there is to it?...Gosh, what was everybody talking about?...Well, I'm glad it's over. For a while, I was afraid I might die before it happened. Had a wreck, or some deal like that.
A budding sociopath, Kit ignores her feelings and she realizes that he doesn't care about anything she says. As they walk along the bank of the river, Kit stands at the edge of the turgid water and points to an uprooted tree lying as driftwood in the water. Holly responds: "The river must've washed the roots away..." [an apt metaphor for Kit's rootless, aimless and wandering life]. Obsessed with obtaining immortality, Kit proposes that they use a heavy stone that he has found and painfully "crunch" their hands to commemorate their first sexual union [at the moment of Kit's capture at the end of the film, he also collects rocks to mark the spot for posterity] - but Holly objects:
Kit: That way, we'd never forget what happened today.
Holly: But it would hurt.
Kit: Well, that's the point, stupid.
Holly: Don't call me stupid.
Kit: OK, but I'm gonna keep it for a souvenir - or maybe one that's lighter.
To symbolize their fleeting days of innocence and happiness, Kit releases a red balloon that carries a small basket carrying some of their "little tokens and things" into the sky [they also bury more 'tokens and things' just before they are captured]:
Kit made a solemn vow that he would always stand beside me and let nothing come between us. He wrote this out in writing, put the paper in a box with some of our little tokens and things, then sent it off in a balloon he'd found while on the garbage route. His heart was filled with longing as he watched it drift off. Something must've told him that we'd never live these days of happiness again, that they were gone forever.
As punishment for Holly's disobedience in continuing to see Kit, and as a way to sublimate his anger toward the teenage delinquent, Mr. Sargis cruelly executes Holly's pet dog in a field, and dumps the dog's body in the river: (Holly's voice-over: "Then sure enough, Dad found out I'd been running around behind his back. He was madder than I'd ever seen him. As punishment for deceiving him, he went and shot my dog.") To keep Holly occupied and away from Kit, Holly's father demands that she take more music lessons:
He made me take extra lessons every day after school and wait there till he came to pick me up. He said that if the piano didn't keep me off the streets, maybe the clarinet would.
To appease and convince Mr. Sargis of his true love for Holly, Kit drives out to a billboard in a deserted field where the sign-painter is working: "You know Holly, well, she means an awful lot to me, sir...Look, I got a lot of respect for her, too, sir. That's about as good a one as I know to tell ya." But Holly's father refuses to listen and forbids him to see Holly ever again: "Well, it's not good enough...I don't want you to hang around any more. I don't want to see you again. Do you understand? You're something."