Badlands (1973) is a film trying to answer a specific question: What turned two seemingly normal people into cross-country killers? It never really hones in on a concrete answer, but draws a deep and contemplative portrait of two people so we can consider the reasons on our own -- if one even exists.
The film begins with Holly (Sissy Spacek), the fifteen year-old girl that serves as one half of the film’s featured duo. She offers poetic yet impassive voice-over throughout the picture, her first few sentences illustrating an entire backstory. Her father (Warren Oates) was once a romantic fellow, then her mother died, and after the death her father became detached from her as a living memory of his loss. Holly lacks identity or strong emotion, and soon falls for the hunky, mysterious, and much-older Kit (Martin Sheen).
Kit is introduced as a garbage man who callously jokes about eating a dead dog and quits his job in his first scene simply because he feels like it. He stomps cans in the street because it gives him something to do for a second. He looks like James Dean, and Holly likes him because he pays attention to her. Kit spots her twirling a baton in her front yard, and Holly likes that he finds her “pretty enough.” Their romance is built upon nothing. We know they fall in love because Holly’s voiceover sentiments say so, though they never display actual chemistry. They kiss once, but it's awkward and feels terrible to watch. This contrived sentiment reveals the emotional hollowness of both characters, and their shared inability to connect with others on any true emotional level.
Kit is charming and courteous in the emptiest way possible. It’s unclear whether his demeanor is genuine politeness or someone acting the way they think society requires, though it becomes clearer after Kit shoots Holly’s father following his rejection of their relationship (“Suppose I shot you. How’d that be?”). Kit follows the deed by faking he and Holly’s suicides and burning down her house in a move he knows won’t fool anyone but doesn’t care. This kicks off their journey as criminals on the lam, and the start of the film’s meditation on identity and its fleeting nature in the grand scope of human existence.
Slant Magazine writes, the film “forces the viewer into contemplating the randomness of life, the arbitrary introduction of this juvenile delinquent into an impressionable girl's life, doors that open, doors that close, every action turning into a reaction. These are the imaginings of a young man who desperately lacks and yearns for an identity, who speculates about the possibility of achieving one through murder and addresses it to his very first victim, and whose only means are to carve out an existence through notoriety as a killer.”
Holly’s baseless sentiment about Kit seems to originate from a lack of anything else to do, and the thin criteria of attention. Her narration applies a level of sentiment and romance to Kit that fails to show itself on-camera, suggesting her perspective on him is fabricated by her own need for companionship and identity rather than what is actually happening. “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.” Did he actually say that, or is that how she wants to see things?
She says she feels comfortable with him because he’s had a strange past, though we’re not privy to anything that happened. To us, Kit’s life story begins when he jumps off that garbage truck, and the most romantic thing he suggests is that they crush their hands with a rock so they won’t forget the first time they made love. He then calls Holly stupid.
“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.”
Holly delivers these lines as we watch the balloon fly away, carrying away the only real pieces of identity that made Holly and Kit, Holly and Kit. Movie Mezzanine writes, “Holly’s voice-over narration–one example of many in the film–epitomizes the two main themes that all of Terrence Malick’s works constantly communicate: The pain of transition, and our obsession as a species with making a mark or finding a purpose in our seemingly minuscule existence. As Holly laments that Kit’s days of heaven are all but behind him now, we see the balloon drift off into the ether, filled with the trinkets that define who these two people are, never to be seen again.”
Kit’s murders don’t seem to provide him any excitement or thrill, nor does he show any remorse about the destruction of human life. He is a man in limbo, acting convinced of his behavior yet lacking commitment in them. He hates people who litter, but doesn’t mind murdering someone. He says it’s okay to shoot bounty hunters because they’re greedy, but not cops because they’re just doing their job (yet he opens fire on cops late in the film). He gives Holly a reason to validate his actions, yet when asked if he likes people at the end of the picture, he replies “they’re okay.” In return he receives the big question: “Then why’d you do it?” Of course, he has no answer. He merely saw his murders as a response to inconvenience, not acts of emotion.
Holly approaches Kit’s murders with the same apathy, hardly reacting to the murder of her own dad let alone the strangers who follow. She eventually speaks of her growing detachment from Kit, but not as it relates to the deaths. Her voice maintains a lack of emotion despite the sentiment she spouts. The film gives no context for this attitude. Badlands’ criminals are not endemic of some grand problem. They’re just children playing at being adults, and bad ones at that. But even if the characters don’t understand the gravity of their actions, the audience does, and they instantly become antiheroes of the most distinctive variety.
The two build an enormous Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse in the woods and live in a far-from-fairytale world. Paste Magazine writes, “This section shows fantastic nature footage, sometimes related to the scene and occasionally non sequitor shots that became Malick’s signature, but more than that it sets the stage for greater questions to be asked about these murders. If these characters’ specific backgrounds aren’t the cause of their sociopathic tendencies, then it may be related more to this thought that ‘sent a chill down my [Holly’s] spine.’ But the questions Holly asks aren’t about death and her place in the world, they’re about her own identity. Is she just this girl whose death is the same as everyone else’s or is she individual, is her mother’s death relevant to who she is, likewise is there something essential about Holly that will land her a husband or could it just be anyone? As the film goes on Holly gradually asserts her individuality more (although still not a lot) while Kit loses his and becomes more and more just a type.”
Later, the couple travels to a “friend” of Kit’s “from his days on the garbage route,” as if it were so long ago. After the friend lures Kit and Holly into a field with the promise of gold coins (playing on their childish sensitivities), Kit shoots him in the stomach. As usual, nobody finds this course of action all that troubling, including the victim, who Kit tells Holly “didn’t say nothing to me about it” if he was upset about his impending death. Two more people, who look an awful lot like Kit and Holly, show up, and the girls have an apathetic conversation about their lives and purpose. The strange girl seems aware she might die in a few minutes, but like everyone else, isn’t particularly concerned about it. Kit locks the two in a cellar and blindly fires a few rounds through the door, not caring much if the bullets reach anyone.
Later yet, the two hide out in a rich man’s house for an evening. The rich man isn’t killed. Instead, he’s given a handwriting sample Kit knows could be given to the cops, showing Kit’s arbitrary decision-making as to who dies and who lives has no intelligent basis.
Kit’s affection for Holly only goes so far as she completes his James Dean image. His eventual downfall is obvious from the beginning, and he wants a little redheaded girl to be by his side when it happens. (“He dreaded the idea of being shot down alone, he said, without a girl to scream out his name,” Holly’s voiceover says.) Unfortunately for Kit, she’s not there when it happens-- he’s chased by police and runs out of momentum, surrendering himself and shooting out his own tires as part of his image.
Movie Mezzanine continues, “Like the big balloon just floating off into nothingness, no matter how much Kit and Holly make their mark in the cultural landscape through their actions, they will still wind up, at the end of the day, two more souls wafting through the universe, so small in comparison to the encroaching nature that surrounds them.”
Kit had become a national celebrity during his tenure as a murderer, and his capture came with attention. He hands out a comb and a lighter as souvenirs while being interviewed about the crimes. He has an identity, but only for a minute. Six months later he was put to death, Holly casually reports, and as we know about time, history will forget him.