Awash in reveries of outlaw fame, tabloid romance, and futures that either never could or would be, Badlands exists in a hypnotic dream-state of young love and murder. When garbage man Kit (Martin Sheen) meets teenage baton-twirler Holly (Sissy Spacek), it’s an instantaneous marriage of likeminded deluded souls. With Kit driven by psychopathic notions of Bonnie and Clyde-style lawbreaking, and Holly guided by unhinged fantasies of amour-fou, their bond is epitomized by an early sequence in which she reflects, with bemused apathy, on killing her catfish while writer/director Terrence Malick depicts not only that indifferent murder but also Kit kicking and walking on top of a dead cow. Based loosely on real-life criminals Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Malick’s 1973 debut about Kit and Holly’s 1950s rampage through the Dakota badlands remains a disturbingly lyrical character study of pitiless bandits, one infused with an unreal atmosphere of desire, derangement and ruthlessness.
David Thomson for Film Comment (May 2009):
Spacek is the child who can see her father murdered without dismay, the stunned face that observes the drab wilderness and the shy, tired girl who at last opts out of Kit’s careering advance (so much subtler an abdication than Bonnie’s wish not to see the end of it all in Bannie and Clyde). As for Sheen, here we can see the great actor who slipped away into such steady, worthy things as The West Wing. Kit is maybe the gentlest, chattiest psycho in American film, a talksmith who performs the verbal equivalent of card tricks to defy the banality of small talk. After he has shot his fellow garbageworker Cato for no apparent reason, Holly asks, “Is he upset?” (Cato is dying.) “He didn’t say anything to me about it,” replies Kit.
Such talk is not just a tic, a silly answering back. It’s a kind of grim screwball comedy – or a realisation that this America has gone past the point where it can take serial killing simply for what it is. The gap between murder and laughter is now itself a joke, and the cowboy sheriffs who eventually nail Kit are parodies of old-time posses, feeding on Kit’s celebrity, his greasy comb and the way he looks like that Dean guy.
Vincent Canby for the New York Times:
In Terrence Malick’s cool, sometimes brilliant, always ferociously American film, Badlands, which marks Malick’s debut as a director, Kit and Holly take an all-American joyride across the upper Middle West, at the end of which more than half a dozen people have been shot to death by Kit, usually at point-blank range.
Badlands inevitably invites comparisons with three other important American films, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Fritz Lang’s Fury and You Only Live Once, but it has a very different vision of violence and death. Malick spends no great amount of time invoking Freud to explain the behavior of Kit and Holly, nor is there any Depression to be held ultimately responsible. Society is, if anything, benign.
This is the haunting truth of Badlands, something that places it very much in the seventies in spite of its carefully re-created period detail. Kit and Holly are directionless creatures, technically literate but uneducated in any real sense, so desensitized that Kit (in Malick’s words at a news conference) can regard the gun with which he shoots people as a kind of magic wand that eliminates small nuisances. Kit and Holly are members of the television generation run amok.
Craig Hubert for cityArts:
You may feel it already. The attention is building at an unnerving pace. Rumors propagate, release dates arise—and disappear with the blink of an eye. Images, yet to be projected on any screen, are hailed as otherworldly by description alone. The hype aggravates and seduces in equal measure, forming a clear dividing line among cinephiles.
There is no middle ground in the cult of Terrence Malick.
Matt Zoller Seitz has put together a new video series on Malick for Moving Image Source. His take on Badlands: