Filmsite Movie Review
Badlands (1973)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

The two become notorious fugitives in the Midwest. In a short black and white montage, vigilante law officers are signed up, deputized and armed to protect their towns, and they pose for photographs. Children walk from school with armed guards nearby. Townsfolk are in a state of wariness - a woman calls her children in before dark. Other men pose with a large county book of records, or with a shotgun, and armed men ride in the backs of pickups. Holly's voice-over romanticizes their folk hero status as celebrities that is being propagated by the popular media throughout the Midwest:

The whole country was out looking for us, for who knew where Kit would strike next. Sidewalks cleared out, stores closed their doors and drew their blinds. Posses and vigilance committees were set up from Texas to North Dakota. Children rode back and forth to school under heavy guard. A famous detective was brought in from Boston. He could find no clues. People left their lights on when they went to sleep. My clarinet teacher said I probably wasn't responsible, but others said I was. Then, on Thursday, the Governor of Oklahoma sent out the National Guard to stand watch at the Federal Reserve Bank in Tulsa when word got out that Kit meant to rob it. It was like the Russians had invaded.

Kit and Holly seek refuge and supplies in another small town - they approach a rich man's four-storied Victorian mansion. (Holly's voice-over: "Kit figured it'd be safer and quicker than shopping in the downtown.") Kit impersonates a meter-reader to the deaf house maid (Dona Baldwin) who answers the door, and easily commandeers the house. In the corner of the luxurious living room, the rich owner (John Carter) sits in a chair and warily learns Kit's intentions: "We're on the run and uh, we'd like to hang out here for a while. Couple of hours, maybe. How'd that be?"

The camera pans along a view of an idyllic pastoral scene in a painting - a refuge that the lovers will never find. At the dining room table, Holly makes the rim of her crystal glassware chime, and Kit rings a dinner bell. He announces: "Next time I ring that, it means it's time to clear out." Holly and Kit are fascinated by the furnishings in the extravagant parlor of the home - a bust on the corner of the piano, a gigantic marble fireplace mantle, a crystal sherry decanter, a golden harp, comfortable chairs, a tapestry mounted on the wall, and an umbrella rack in the hallway. Holly leaves the house by the side entrance and strolls onto the lawn where she has a fleeting thought to run away into the world (that she notes is "like a faraway planet"):

The day was quiet and serene but I didn't notice, for I was deep in thought, and not even thinking about how to slip off. The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return. I thought what a fine place it was, full of things that people can look into and enjoy.

In the living room, Kit delivers an unbelievable monologue (a reflection of 50's conservatism) into a dictaphone, in close-up with a cigarette dangling from his mouth (a pose often adopted by James Dean). For lasting posterity, he records moralistic instructions to be left for other young people, although his own self-absorbed life-script hasn't obeyed his own philosophical advice:

Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don't treat 'em like enemies. There's always an outside chance you can learn something. Try to keep an open mind. Try to understand the viewpoints of others. Consider the minority opinion, but try to get along with the majority of opinion once it's accepted. Of course, Holly and I have had fun, even if it has been rushed, and uh, so far, we're doing fine, hadn't got caught. Excuse the grammar.

In one of the rooms where the furnishings are covered with sheets and the quiet maid and rich man are sequestered, Holly approaches the rich man [an incarnation or projection of her father?] and tells him her doubts about Kit's sanity - it's one of the first visible cracks in their relationship:

Sometimes he acts like there's something wrong with his bean. Hope nothing ever goes wrong with mine...He's kind of odd. They claim I've got him wrapped around my little finger, but I never told him to shoot anybody.

When he hears the doorbell ring, Kit puts down the newspaper he is reading (with accounts of their exploits?). With his pistol in his back pocket, Kit answers the door and tells the unexpected visitor (director Terrence Malick, uncredited), with blueprints under his arm, that the rich man is "down with the flu" and can't be seen. Puzzled about the rich man's sudden illness and the appearance of the blue-jeaned stranger at the door, the visitor jots down a message before leaving.

Fearing that they'll be discovered, Kit impulsively decides that he and Holly must once again go on the run. He takes the rich man's light blue coat and white hat, a bag of groceries, and a silver trophy, presents the rich man with a list of items he has borrowed, and then herds his two hostages into a locked closet - he threatens the compliant rich man with "no monkey business now." With the realization that he is creating valuable souvenirs along their getaway route, he tells Holly: "That guy could sell that list I gave him as a sample of my handwriting." They drive off in the rich man's black Cadillac (instead of choosing his red Rolls Royce), as Kit remarks:

You get a little money in your pocket, you think all your problems are solved. Well, let me tell you, they're not.

Holly narrates more about their northern flight across the open, treeless, and desolate (but beautiful) Badlands of the South Dakota prairie toward the Great Plains of Montana, rather than to their original destination of Texas. To prevent boredom, she reads to Kit from her tabloid movie magazine Star Hollywood about celebrity rumors and facts. [The article parallels their own life story and the blurring of fact and fiction: the rumor is that they are on a wild and adventurous crime spree that takes weeks and weeks, but the fact is that they are ordinary, emotionally-undeveloped, apathetic and bored teenagers who are quickly growing weary of their few days' retreat across the Badlands and frontiers of Middle America. Kit, however, imitates various postures, mannerisms and facial expressions of the troubled actor that he resembles - James Dean - to reincarnate himself.] Free and alone on dusty country roads in the frontier, they fill up on gas from a pipeline way-station, and camp out at night:

Fearing there'd be roadblocks on the highways, we took off across that region known as the Great Plains. Kit told me to enjoy the scenery - and I did. "Rumor: Pat Boone is seriously considering giving up his career so he can return to school full-time and complete his education. Fact: Pat has told intimates that so long as things are going well for his career, it's the education that will have to take a back seat...Rumor: Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth are in love. Fact: True, but not with each other." Through desert and mesa, across the endless miles of open range, we made our headlong way, steering by the telephone lines toward the mountains of Montana. Kit would sometimes ram a cow to save on ammo, and we'd cook it. Once we had to eat a bunch of salt grass. It tasted like cabbage. For gas, we used the leakage from the valves of the pipelines we found along the way. Drip gas is what it's called in that part of the country. Little by little, we approached the border. Kit was glad to leave South Dakota behind and cursed its name. He said that if the Communists ever dropped the atomic bomb, he wished they'd put it right in the middle of Rapid City.

The camera pans from right to left across the flat horizon that bisects the film's frame, and comes to rest on the scarecrow-like figure of Kit with his shotgun draped over the back of his shoulders and his head bowed - the gun serves as his crucifix. A montage of images (a visual metaphor for the empty, arid lives and interiors of the duo) show the isolated, wild and barren world that they have driven into: open skies with clouds, a faraway peak on the high plains, a wild turkey and lizard, a thunderhead with lightning on the distant horizon, a falcon, and a rising full moon. The two delusionary and lost lovers move in directionless isolation across the bleak landscape. A dramatic fantasizer, Holly speaks about the "utter loneliness" that they are experiencing during their cross-country escape across the wild frontier:

(voice-over) We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there. Kit said that solitude was a better word, 'cause it meant more exactly what I wanted to say. Whatever the expression, I told him we couldn't go on living this way... "I feel like a, kind of like an animal living out here. There's no place to bathe and not any place to get anything good to eat."...In the distance, I saw a train making its way silently across the plain, like a caravan in The Adventures of Marco Polo. It was our first taste of civilization in weeks, and I asked Kit if we could have a closer look.

A closeup shows the "excess baggage" of things that they decide to bury [to establish a semblance of roots] in a bucket as their own personal time capsule: the purloined silver trophy, a magnifying glass, a red doll, a stack of stereopticon slides, and a pack of Camel cigarettes:

He took and buried some of our things in a bucket. He said that nobody else would know where we'd put 'em, and that we'd come back someday, maybe, and they'd still be sitting here, just the same, but we'd be different. And if we never got back, well, somebody might dig 'em up a thousand years from now and wouldn't they wonder!

Forlorn, Holly is reminded of her pangs of longing to return to civilization when they park under a train trestle and she watches a coast-to-coast streamliner roar above them on the tracks. With the circling spin of a glass Pepsi bottle in the dust, Kit leaves "to fate which direction we should take." When the spin is inconclusive, he decides to head for a mountain in the distance - toward Saskatchewan. At dusk, they drive toward their chosen Canadian mountains, "a magical land beyond the reach of the law." But Holly's romantic, fantasy dreams are fading and the ordinary desolation of life has caught up with her. She has decided that she doesn't want to "tag around with a hell-bent type" any longer, and prefers to spend her time "spell(ing) out entire sentences with (her) tongue on the roof of (her) mouth":

We took off at sunset, on a line toward the mountains of Saskatchewan, for Kit a magical land beyond the reach of the law. He needed me now more than ever, but something had come between us. I'd stopped even paying attention to him. Instead, I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, where nobody could read them. That night we moved closer to the border, and clear across the prairie, at the very edge of the horizon. We could make out the gas fires of the refineries at Missoula, while to the south, we could see the lights of Cheyenne, a city bigger and grander than I'd ever seen. I felt all kind of things looking at the lights of Cheyenne, but most important, I made up my mind to never again tag around with a hell-bent type, no matter how in love with him I was. Finally, I found the strength to tell Kit this. I pointed out that even if we got to the Far North, he still couldn't make a living.

As they drive along at night, their faces illuminated by the dashboard, Kit tells his inattentive girlfriend that he could get a job with the Mounties: "The Northwest Mounties, hell, I got all the qualifications. I can ride and uh, shoot, and uh, I don't mind the cold. Fact, I kinda like the cold." Holly reminds him of the cold reality: "They'd probably ask to see your driver's license before they'd hire ya."

A white dove flutters in their light of their headlights. When they hear Nat King Cole on their car radio singing "A Blossom Fell", they stop the car and tenderly dance (in circles) in the beam of the headlights of the Cadillac. They both have emotionless and expressionless looks on their faces as they shuffle and glide around. [She wears the rich man's jacket. He is dressed in his trademark outfit: silver-capped cowboy boots, denim jacket and pants (with his gun stuffed in his back pocket), and white T-shirt.] The old-fashioned, romantic interlude compels Kit to tell Holly: "Boy, if I could sing a song like that, I mean, if I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it'd be a hit."

The end of their innocence nears for the duo. Bombarded by the power of the media their whole lives, Holly's voice-over (expressed with adolescent cliches borrowed from cheap pulp fiction that she reads) foreshadows Kit's coming capture and imminent death:

Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if he'd hear the doctor pronounce him dead, or if he'd be able to read what the papers would say about him the next day, from the other side. He dreaded the idea of being shot down alone, he said, without a girl to scream out his name. Then, for an instant, the sight of the mountains in the dawn light got his hopes back up.

In the middle of the gorgeous high plains of Montana, they drive up to an isolated gas well, where the roughneck rig operator refuses to give them gas. Kit threatens to swap his vehicle with the man's truck: "Name's Carruthers. Believe I shoot people every now and then. Not that I deserve a medal." The appearance of an approaching police helicopter forces Kit to back off and mutter: "Boy, I had a feeling today was going to be the day." When he urges Holly to make a run for their car, she stalls, shrugs, and replies that she is tired of running: "I don't want to...I just don't want to go." He walks off and kicks a clod of dirt, and then offers her an unrealistic alternative for a fantasy rendezvous:

What is wrong with you, huh!? What is the matter with you, huh? I don't know what to make of people like you, I really don't. You want a second chance, then listen. Twelve noon, the Grand Coulee Dam, New Year's Day, 1964. You meet me there, now you got that?

She assents to his proposal as the helicopter lands. While shielding himself with part of a car fender, Kit fires shots at the State Trooper (John Womack, Jr.), wounds (and kills?) the officer, and roars off in the Cadillac. With arms upraised, Holly surrenders and is taken away in the helicopter into the blue sky.

At a Texaco "ONE STOP" gas station, Kit asks for a fill-up from the attendant (Ben Bravo) and then dumps out the contents of Holly's suitcase next to a trash barrel. He throws some of Holly's possessions into the garbage can, but saves one of her books, and then offers the remainder of the items to the attendant: "You want any of that junk, it's yours."

A Sheriff's vehicle drives by the station and recognizes the fugitive and his car - the Sheriff (Gary Littlejohn) brakes his patrol car, swerves around, and begins the last pursuit. Kit throws the book into his car, jumps in, and hurriedly drives off. After a chase down the highway and onto dirt roads (with heavy clouds of dust swirling up and obstructing vision), Kit fires shots out of his driver's-side window. He adjusts the rear-view mirror to primp himself and to capture his own reflection during the pursuit. The police car rams him after they drive through a cow herd and barbed wire fence. At a crossroads, Kit adroitly fish-tails his Cadillac and makes the ninety-degree turn, but the Sheriff's vehicle rolls onto its side and then comes to rest on its four wheels, but it is temporarily stalled.

Although he has eluded them, Kit feels confined and trapped, so he scripts his own capture. He dons the rich man's white hat, stops his car, flattens one of its tires with a gunshot (later claiming a flat tire), climbs onto the hood, and checks his pulse at the wrist. After collecting rocks and building a cairn to mark, for posterity's sake, the spot where he will be arrested, he calmly surrenders to the Sheriff's vehicle that approaches from afar:

Often, I've wondered what was going through Kit's head before they got him, and why he didn't make a run for it while he still had the chance. Did he figure they'd just catch him the next day? Was it despair? He claimed to having a flat tire, but the way he carried on about it, I imagine this is false.

He throws his hands up into the air and walks forward toward the officers (the Sheriff and his Deputy (Alan Vint)) with their guns drawn. After Kit is handcuffed, the fascinated law officers inspect their impressive prize:

Deputy: Hell, he ain't no bigger than I am. (Kit is led to the police car with the Sheriff's pistol in his ear.)
Kit: You're gonna give me a cauliflower ear, Sheriff.
Deputy: He should've thought about that before he got caught. Shouldn't he?

As the officers escort the homicidal killer back to the patrol car, the Deputy reflexively fires his gun at something in a neighboring field. Kit jumps - surprised and startled by the spontaneous gunshot that shouldn't make him flinch.

In the police car, Kit congratulates the officers for a job well done: "Well, you boys have performed like a couple of heroes. And don't think I'm not gonna pass it around when we get to town." The Sheriff grabs Kit's white hat from his head and tosses it out the window. Kit tells them why he killed people during his murderous escapade [The killings total at least seven people: Mr. Sargis, the three bounty hunters, Cato, the boy and girl in the storm cellar, and possibly the State Trooper in the helicopter]:

Deputy: You like people?
Kit: They're OK.
Deputy: Then why'd you do it?
Kit: I don't know. I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess. Just not this big a one. Takes all kinds, though.
Deputy (to Sheriff): You know who that sombitch looks like? You know, don't you?
Sheriff: No.
Deputy: I'll kiss your ass if he don't look like James Dean.

Kit is impressed and gratified that they have likened him to the famed 50's movie star - he has successfully left his mark.

Surrounded by scores of gawking Montana State Troopers and National Guardsmen at an airport hanger before being extradited back to South Dakota, Kit is shackled in a leather vest that criss-crosses his chest. As the camera pulls back, the legendary character is seen standing on the wing of a light plane. Infatuated with himself and basking in the limelight as a momentary folk hero for fifteen minutes of fame, he tosses out his personal possessions as souvenirs: to one officer, his cigarette lighter, to another his comb, and to a third a ballpoint pen. When the admiring onlookers treat him like a celebrity and ask him impromptu questions like fans, he encourages his own cult status:

Voice: Hey, Kit, who's your favorite singer?
Kit: Eddie Fisher. Who's yours?
Voice: Eddie Fisher.
Kit: Damn...
Voice: How old are you?
Kit: Don't you read the papers?
Voice: You ever been married?
Kit: No sir, I hadn't.
Voice: You afraid of death?
Kit: I hadn't thought about it much.

Kit is led over to a police car where a handcuffed, sullen Holly leans on the fender. Reunited again, she shyly looks down without responding to Kit's questions:

Don't worry now, I'm gonna get you off these charges. There's a whole lot of other boys out there waitin' for ya. You're gonna have a lot of fun. Boy, we rang the bell, didn't we? I'll say this though, that guy with the deaf maid? He's just lucky he's not dead, too. Course, uh, too bad about your dad...We're gonna have to sit down and talk about that sometime.

When the plane lands, the one that will transfer them back to South Dakota, they are walked across the tarmac. A large throng of troopers and guardsmen follow them. A bystander points out the infamous fugitive criminal to his young son in his arms. Kit signs some papers, then shakes hands with the star-struck Deputy, and is cordially told: "Good luck to you...I mean it." As the props on the airplane begin to whir, the plane's wheels (golden in the sunshine) also turn toward the runway to taxi into the air.

As the film concludes, Holly's voice-over informs us that Kit was executed, and that she was only considered as an accessory to her partner's crimes (even though she stood by impassively and cooperatively - completely indifferent to his horrific homicides). She pursues her marital dreams by marrying her lawyer's son. Holly also tells how Kit's charming nature can entrance murderers in prison and law officers. (Even innocent, small-town high-school girls who only aspired to be baton-twirlers could come under his spell.) To the very end, Kit's obsession with leaving proof of his own existence and celebrity (other than by committing murder) is climaxed by the donation of his own body to science:

Kit and I were taken back to South Dakota. They kept him in solitary, so he didn't have a chance to get acquainted with the other inmates, though he was sure they'd like him, especially the murderers. Myself, I got off with probation and a lot of nasty looks. Later, I married the son of the lawyer who defended me. Kit went to sleep in the courtroom while his confession was being read, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On a warm spring night, six months later, after donating his body to science, he did.

During the plane ride in the cabin of the plane, Kit envies the State Trooper's hat:

Kit: Boy, I'd like to buy me one of them.
Trooper: You're quite an individual, Kit.
Kit: Think they'll take that into consideration? (The Trooper smiles and looks away out the plane window.)

Kit glances toward Holly across from him for a reaction. A faint smile crosses her lips, and then she dreamily looks out the window across the clouds stretching toward the golden, setting sun - her fantasy of traveling to a "magical land beyond the reach of the law" has been fulfilled.

[Note: The credits offer thanks to Arthur Penn, director of an earlier 'lovers-on-the-lam' film: Bonnie and Clyde (1967).]

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