Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) opens with a powerful scene that allows for much thematic analysis.
The film is introduced by Holly (Sissy Spacek), a teenage girl sitting on her bed playing with a dog. Her voiceover narration, delivered in an emotionless and candid tone, tells that her mother died years ago and her father (Warren Oates), never able to cope with the loss, moved her to South Dakota in an attempt to hide from the past. The accompanying music is somber, and the tone of Holly’s voice very matter-of-fact. The scene suggests it may be Holly’s bedroom in the house they left behind, before the move to South Dakota, which renders the sequence a memory flashing back to an earlier, easier time. Either way, Holly notes that her father has a hard job connecting with her, as Holly serves as an endless reminder of the wife he lost. Of course, it’s Holly that deals with this emotional burden. Distanced from her father and without the comfort of a mother, she has only her dog for comfort.
When Kit (Martin Sheen) comes along and expresses interest in Holly, her father will hear nothing of it. Her father has trouble with her, “the little stranger he found in his house,” yet he isn’t capable of letting go of her or he would have nothing of his late wife. Kit sees Holly as a young girl he can run away with, who can be his companion on the road he’s about to travel, and who can be a lover. Holly’s father sees her as an innocent young girl needing protection, and the substitute for a wife he no longer has. Of course, Kit wins, shooting Holly’s father and taking her away from the life she knows into a cross-country murder spree where they explore identity.
On the run, the two move to a treehouse where Holly becomes like a mother, experimenting with makeup, tending to the decorations, reading stories to Kit, while he explores guerrilla warfare by setting traps and practicing defensive strategies for when they are inevitably discovered. Holly brought her school books along so she wouldn’t fall behind in her studies, a move that subtly refreshes the truth that she is a child. They dance to pop music and claim to be in love. It’s a murky balance between husband and wife, mother and child, male and female, and the violence that surrounds it all.
Resting in their woodland hideaway, Holly ponders: “One day, while taking a look at some vistas in Dad's stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter and who had only just so many years to live …” With each of her thoughts a slide appears -- a canal in Brazil, a camel boy in front of the Great Pyramid, some cows standing in a fjord with a steamship in the distance, a mother with her child, a woman playing the piano as another woman looks on, a family on a lawn, a soldier in a wheat field whispering something into his girlfriend's ear.
“It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment... If my mom had never met my dad? If she'd of never died? And what's the man I'll marry going to look like? What's he doing right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn't know me? Does it show on his face?”
Telling as it may be that Holly ponders these questions in reference to someone obviously other than Kit, they are all thoughts that speak to the concept of a nuclear family. Without any maternal security in her own life, Holly seems determined to stop that tradition and provide for others. Later in the film Holly tells someone, “I've got to stick by Kit... He feels trapped.” Is that because she loves him, or because she’s filling a void of maternal neglect?
The combination of familial, parental, and sexual roles Holly feels for Kit are challenging and likely contribute to her deadpan, emotional suffocation. They seem like fantasies more than goals, as her own interpretation of family isn’t very strong, evidenced by her emotionless response to the murder of her own father. She only mentions him one or two times later in the film, but never indicates how she felt about his death. He may have well just been another random stranger gunned down by Kit.
Though it’s completely in subtext, Malick’s decision to establish Holly’s character in the first sentences of the film through the lens of a dead mother and a detached father were certainly not without reason. It is a brisk way of summing up an entire childhood in a few seconds, and explains why Holly seems to have little feeling for anything as the story unfolds. It also suggests her identity as a girl, a woman, and eventually as a mother have no point of reference.