Badlands is a film unlike any I’ve ever seen. Written, produced, and directed by Terrence Malick, the movie stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Released in 1973, it’s a dramatization of the Starkweather – Fugate crime spree of 1958 in which the couple kills 11 people, beginning with Fugate’s parents and two-year-old sister.
I loved this movie. I loved it so much I watched it twice. I love the non sequiturs, the bits of dialog that seem so random, the voice-over technique Malick uses, the sparseness of the story set against the vast, western sky.
Kit Carruthers, Malick’s fictional version of Starkweather, is collecting garbage in an alley in Fort Dupree, South Dakota, when he sees Holly Sargis twirling a baton in front of her house. He is immediately smitten.
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.”
Holly narrates: “He was handsomer than anybody I’d ever met. He looked just like James Dean.” Later, in a more reflective mood, “Little did I realize that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.”
Holly is 15 years old, Kit 25. Holly’s father disapproves of the relationship. Holly: “Dad found out I been running around behind his back. He was madder than I ever seen him. His punishment for deceiving him: he went and shot my dog.”
Kit, in a confrontation with Holly’s father: “Suppose I shot you. How’d that be? Huh? You want to hear what it sounds like?” Later, he talks of the killing: “He was provoking me when I popped him. Well that’s what it was like. Pop. I’m sorry. I mean, nobody’s coming out of this thing happy. Especially not us. I can’t deny we’ve had fun though.”
Kit, after having shot his friend Cato: “I got him in the stomach.”
Holly: “Is he mad?”
Kit: “He didn’t say nothing to me about it.”
Like two children in a magical land, they go into the forest and build a tree house. “We hid out in the wilderness down by the river in the grove of cottonwoods. Being the flood season, we built our house in the trees.” It’s an idyllic life, almost a fairy tale, until three bounty hunters arrive, and it all comes crashing down.
Kit Carruthers kills without emotion, remorse, or a twinge of conscience. Holly observes with a child-like innocence, never judging, never attempting to justify Kit’s actions. “I’ve got to stick by Kit,” she says. “He feels trapped.”
Martin Sheen considers Badlands his best work. Sissy Spacek says the movie and her role in it changed the way she thought about film making. “The artist rules,” she says. “Nothing else matters.”
The two young lovers, Kit and Holly, are fascinating because stories like theirs fill our newspapers and tabloids. We read about them, and we wonder how such things could happen. No matter how precise the details of their lives, how horrendous their backgrounds, how deep the psychological studies, still we do not understand. Charles Starkweather killed Caril Fugate’s parents and strangled her sister. They hid the bodies and lived in the house for six days, until the grandmother got suspicious and called the police. A woman in Orlando was accused of using chloroform to put her two-year-old child to sleep so she could party and not have to pay a baby sitter. Lyle and Eric Menendez killed their parents with a 12-gauge shotgun so they wouldn’t have to wait for their inheritance. Susan Smith drowned her two sons in the hope that men would find her more attractive, less “encumbered.” Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson. Killers all.
Malick shows us the face of a killer, and he is young, handsome, and charming. He turns his camera on a pretty, red-haired girl who falls in love and follows her lover into the Badlands of Montana, until she tires of life on the run.
Badlands is a powerful movie. A perfect blend of dialog, action, and setting, it’s as near to a perfect film as any I’ve ever seen.
In the forty years that followed the release of Badlands, Malick went on to write and direct four feature films: Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and The Tree of Life (2011). I look forward to seeing each of them.