1 Hr., 33 Mins.
He's 25 and she's 15. He looks just like James Dean, and is the most handsome man she's ever seen. She is quiet and introspective; he likes her because he enjoys talking to her, her company.
Theirs is a love affair that begins as something sweet; it turns into something more deadly as it progresses. Shortly after they first meet, they become the targets of a manhunt, wanted for shooting down six people in the sweltering North.
The lovers in question are Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), individuals who grew up loners but find each other whole in the presence of the other. Kit is a garbage man without much drive; Holly is a schoolgirl who lives with a single father (Warren Oates) in a very American neighborhood.
They come across one another for the first time when Kit spots Holly twirling a baton in the middle of the street. From there does a relationship flower, with Kit just a little more into Holly than Holly is into him. She likes the attention.
Their (or at least his) attachment soon begins to get serious, but not in the ways we would expect — maybe a frowned-upon elopement would be more predictable. But Kit proves himself not to be the faux bad type James Dean was in Rebel Without a Cause: without warning, he breaks into Holly’s house and shoots her father. Now, he tells himself and his true love, they can finally be together. They burn down the house and hit the road, heading wherever the highway takes them so long as they don’t end up somewhere near the fuzz.
At first, Holly isn’t much bothered that Kit has taken away most of her life. She’d rather be with someone who likes her than live the rest of her existence lonely and moral, and so she sees the death of her father as a sacrifice for her transformation from often ignored student to drooled-over lover. But skepticism intensifies as Kit’s trigger-happiness doubles to what you’d expect from your average outlaw. Within just a few days, he has killed several people, dubbing them as potential witnesses for rationalization. A crime spree it is, just without the glamour of a tawdry tabloid story.
Though Badlands often feels like one. Backed with poetic narration by Spacek, the events that unfold are frequently repositioned as nostalgic stories of the past, us imagining a future Holly sitting in a rocking chair with her grandkids, reminiscing about the dangerous life she lived in her youth with a man she used to know.
The directorial debut of Terrence Malick, whose acclaimed and hiatus-driven career has enforced an elusive persona, Badlands is a lusciously photographed, subtly meaningful, and profoundly cinematic crime film that doesn’t much feel like a crime film; it is more reasonable to call it a euphonious take on the beauty of young love, and how its many descents into the self-indulgent and the foolish can lead to trouble both romanticized and bleak. Heightened is its sense of regret, considering that Kit and Holly’s misadventures are illegal and not merely mistakes of teenage motivation. But that doesn’t change the way Badlands transcends the genre it emulates, so dreamy and so ornate that we find ourselves to be much more fixated on our emotional reaction to its images and its aesthetic merit than on Kit’s sickening actions, the way Holly is too saucer-eyed and out-of-touch to realize that the situation is too dire to think of oneself.
And yet, Badlands feels epic. Malick’s gift for imagery is startling. We are bombarded with shots of gorgeous landscape shots; photographic caresses of the bodies and faces of Sheen and Spacek, who are perfectly cast (he fitting as the young outlaw handsome but thoughtless, she the innocent willing to go along for any ride that involves her being liked for once in her life). Every frame is like a photograph, irreproachably lensed to highlight the sun-soaked sublimity of the Montana Badlands. The visually opulent idealization of outlaw living is captivating; we see Badlands as a blood-soaked fairytale, so cinematographically alluring that it’s easy to forget how serious its content is.
Because maybe Badlands is a love story gone wrong, a darkened embodiment of the American dream, an unromantic notion of what it means to be Bonnie and Clyde-lite. What happens when the girl you love is only with you out of aimlessness, when simplistic routine is less fetching than criminality, when being on the lam is more tiring than it is carefree? Badlands is a game-changer, a depiction of ordinary life turned both violent and elegiac. Its characters unremarkable, it makes a pulp story ring with supple understatement. Certainly, it is one of the most important films of the 1970s, and nobody delivers cinematic poetry better than Malick. A