Terrence Malick’s debut tells the story of fifteen year old Holly who falls in love with ‘James Dean lookalike’ Kit. Whilst Holly dryly narrates us through their tale, we watch the couple run away from home and venture out across America, killing anyone who stands in their way. Based on a true case, Badlands has darker dimensions that you can choose to delve into. Or you can simply read the film as a thrilling story about two quirky individuals who attempt to find their place in the world, whilst escaping across the Dakota Badlands. Malick’s visual style and directorial presence was clear even in his first work. The camera reacts in a certain way to light and this remains present in Malick’s work, forty years on. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are perfectly suited to the roles of our murderous lovers. Spacek has an innocent and a vulnerability that fades as the narrative develops. Sheen has a charisma and an attitude that is firstly attractive but grows ever more eerie as time goes by. Spacek tells the story in an emotionless tone, never connecting to what she is discussing and therefore keeping us, the audience, slightly at bay. Yet, Badlands, as a whole, is charming, intelligent and enticing.
Malick uses landscape in a way that no other director manages to. Here, the natural surroundings become as much a part of the story as Kit and Holly. One section of the film shows the couple living in the forest, in their own constructed tree house. This is the only point at which the couple seem to conform to the American tradition of domesticity. For this brief amount of time, Holly becomes the mother, wife and woman that she possibly longs to be to Kit. Sure enough, this sanctuary is soon disturbed and the story continues, leaving this domestic fantasy and the forest setting far behind. The threat of death is constantly present in the spectator’s mind. The film shares certain familiarities with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde so there is always a threat of violence that lies in the unknown. However, what is most interesting about Badlands is the fact that this possibility of death is never taken seriously by the main characters. Their freedom of spirit and the importance they place in the ‘here and now’ drives them on and keeps us, the audience, enthralled. Badlands may, on first glance, seem a world away from Malick’s more recent philosophical epics such as The Tree of Life but on closer inspection there is a lot to be recognised in both, much of which stems from Malick’s initial ideas in Badlands.
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