Reviews - Badlands
Reviewed By John Stakes
It is remarkable that the film was made at all let alone re-released. This was no mainstream Hollywood blockbuster but a small independent movie. However, Malick had difficulty raising the initial funding of $25000, the crew mutinied during filming, and several cameras went up in flames during the scene when Holly’s home is torched. Worse was to follow when the film bombed at the box office despite wide critical acclaim.
But the film proved to be a steady burner eventually achieving a cult status alongside films like Bonnie and Clyde and True Romance, as well as spawning several inferior examples of the genre being the souring of the American dream when the disaffected young go on the run.
Thirty five years has not dimmed the film’s ability to shock not only by the scenes of casual murder in which the body count goes into double figures, but also as much by some hum-drum often banal exchanges between the young couple and the girl’s matter-of-fact voice-overs as the victims are dispatched with casual indifference.
Martin Sheen in arguably his best ever performance plays the 25year old drifter Kit, a psychopath and James Dean lookalike with a polite and persuasive patter which belies his deeply disturbed persona. Sissy Spacek is no less impressive as the naïve, plain, baton twirling 15year old schoolgirl Holly who is swept off her feet and into Kit’s car when he casually kills her father after he orders Kit to stay away. Their personal loneliness becomes their bond with Holly happy to string along with the one man who has ever paid her any attention (when he could have had any girl he wanted), and Kit needing someone with whom to share and witness his rise to the dizzy heights of notoriety.
Their short lives together are as empty as the vast stark plains of South Dakota through which they journey. Their adventures on the run are diarised by Holly with all the gravitas and insight of the teenage magazine she carries which helps to perpetuate the languid dream-like pace of the piece and their distancing from the reality of their plight. Kit’s cultivation of his notoriety is played out as a self fulfilling prophesy which he exploits at every turn none more so than in the closing scenes when he jokes on first name terms with his National Guard captors to whom he has surrendered to avoid being shot.
Malick’s screenplay is drawn from the true life story of Charles Starkweather, a 19 year old who butchered the family of his 14 year old girlfriend in 1958 for which he was executed in 1959 and she received a life sentence. Malick has Kit being executed by electric chair, but not before he had donated his organs to medical research. Holly is merely put on probation and later marries the son of a lawyer.
Malick’s film still resonates today as it reflects the extremes to which some of those bruised by the American dream continue to wreak havoc out of all proportion to the harm they have suffered in order to leave their mark. It makes no attempt to explain Kit’s behaviour or even to outline his background and we are left with the conclusion that deranged misfits will continue to scar the surface of civilisation whatever state it is perceived to be in.
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