Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) hit the road in Badlands.
Badlands is acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s first film, and it’s got most, if not all, of his trademarks—philosophical narration, long shots of the wilderness, a massive fire, and some good (but very restrained) performances. All that said, it feels like a second-rate Bonnie and Clyde. The characters have virtually no personality, which makes developing any emotional connection with them an incredibly difficult task. So we’re left to feel repulsed by them, just waiting for one character to wake up and the other to get caught or offed. And that’s a problem I just couldn’t get past no matter how much I admired the direction or acting.
Holly (Sissy Spacek) is a 15-year-old student in rural South Dakota when she meets Kit (Martin Sheen), an unemployed James Dean look-a-like who is smitten with her from the outset. She slowly falls for him, as well, but it’s without the permission of her father (Warren Oates). After he finally forbids Holly and Kit from seeing each other, Kit decides to kill him and run away with Holly. They live in the woods, reading about their status as fugitives, until some bounty hunters head their way. After dispatching of them, it’s on the road once again, with no real destination in mind, a pile of corpses to their names, and growing celebrity status across small town America.
Badlands greatest strength ultimately leads to its greatest weakness. By keeping us at arm’s length from the characters, we’re able to thoughtfully consider Holly and Kit’s motives and figure out why these two simple, seemingly ordinary individuals follow the path they do. In doing so, however, we never feel for them. We don’t like them or feel pity for them. We don’t even hate them all that much. We just watch and wonder. It’s intellectually stimulating, but never feels satisfying.
Malick’s unique style is evident here, though perhaps not as defined as it will be in later films. He loves to linger on little things, images that are often haunting and meaningful. The setting is probably Malick’s least picturesque, but he does a fantastic job making Badlands visually interesting with the budget he had to work with (reportedly less than $500,000).
The performances are great, when you realize what Malick is trying to accomplish. However, my issue with screenplay extends to the acting also. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are two great actors, and they inhabit their roles completely—but why no emotion? Not even in the film’s final throws does one of these individuals show an ounce of anything. It didn’t bother me that they did bad things, nor did it bother me that they never really regret their actions. I just wanted to understand them a little more. And if there really wasn’t anything there, then I’m not sure this story is really worthy of a motion picture.
Ultimately, Badlands was pretty forgettable. Try as I might, I just could not get past the distance between myself and the characters. Parts of the film worked (I liked the sequence in which Kit and Holly lived in the wilderness), but on the whole, I never truly cared about anything that was going on. So Malick’s debut is a disappointment. Not to worry, however; He finds his footing later.