Classic crime sprees films are often characterised by sociopathy, as characters we identify with spiral out of control and into deeper and deeper trouble. Badlands is a stunning example of this trope, as a debutant Terence Malick shows us the madness of a rootless man through the guileless eyes of a young woman he has dragged into his mania.
Is the sociopathy his or hers, though? This question constantly problematises the narrative presented and the answer is up for debate.
Sissy Spacek plays all-American teenager Holly, who meets a wilful older drifter, Martin Sheen’s Kit, and is quickly swept along into the tempest of his impulsive life. Walking out on a job he has clearly held for days, not months, he fixes on Holly as his new obsession, forcing his way into her life at the slightest encouragement. After a seemingly gentle courtship, violence explodes into the film when Holly’s father justifiably attempts to shut Kit out of his naive daughter’s life.
After Kit destroys her family life, Holly, almost on a whim, joins him to escape into the countryside – though they’re never quite as far from civilisation as they act – Malick shows us distant highways and concerned locals to remind us that these self-styled outcasts are not so isolated as they like to believe. Eventually the action spills into the flat, open badlands of Montana and Saskatchewan, and Malick exploits the stark landscape to great visual effect.
Yet Holly’s narrating voice describes these vistas, and the violent twists of the plot, in near-monotone, and Spacek plays her as a disaffected child, barely engaging with the world around her. This could be a sociopathy to match Kit’s furious violence – a lack of remorse or emotion suggesting a struggle to comprehend the wrongness of their action. Or, more persuasively, this is a portrayal of deep trauma – a mind too young to process the horror with which she is confronted. A murdered father, a premature sexual awakening, the loss of her home and habitat, all in a matter of weeks – no wonder that Holly withdraws from the world. Her past-tense narration is that of a person coming to terms with their history, but its deadened tone is not suggestive of real progress.
Yet this is a process which it is clear Sheen’s Kit never endures to any extent – he prefers to luxuriate in his recklessness. The progression in his violence is gradual at first and soon rushes onward – a can crushed under his heel, a dead cow stood underfoot, a man shot in the heat of the moment, and a number more killed in a considered manner. By the end he is a mass killer, yet he retains the wild and forced nobility he has assumed as his mantle, in ridiculous monologues left on voicemails and in recording booths. The reception he receives from police and national guard at the film’s close is disturbing – a relevant and timely reminder of America’s fascination with handsome white murderers, and their lack of self-examination when it comes to the guns they wield.
Badlands is a layered work – a viewer could be preoccupied with Holly’s horrible situation, with Kit’s maddening near-sanity, with the state of the American cult of celebrity, and the film does impressive work in engaging these concerns while also providing a sometimes thrilling and always arresting experience.