HE WAS 25 YEARS OLD. HE COMBED HIS HAIR LIKE JAMES DEAN. SHE WAS 15. SHE TOOK MUSIC LESSONS AND COULD TWIRL A BATON. FOR A WHILE THEY LIVED TOGETHER IN A TREE HOUSE. IN 1959, SHE WATCHED WHILE HE KILLED A LOT OF PEOPLE.
The true exploits of criminals and their crimes have long been a fascination to people, from the continued mystery of the case of Jack the Ripper to the birth of the non-fiction crime novel with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Filmmakers are no exception to this rule. Just look at the films we’ve already looked at over the journey so far: All the President’s Men, Anatomy of a Murder, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, all with their beginnings in a true life criminal act. Even American Beauty was partly inspired by the case of Amy Fisher. In 1973, first timer Terrence Malick wrote and directed a film that took its inspiration from a killing spree that lasted two months in the late 1950s. It would also be the inspiration for two of Quentin Tarantino’s scripts (True Romance and Natural Born Killers). The film in question was Badlands.
Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a young garbage collector, meets Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) and instantly fall for each other. When Holly’s father expresses his objections to their relationship, Kit murders him and the pair flee the house. Making their way to the Badlands of Montana, they leave a trail of bodies in their wake, making their attempts to stay ahead of those chasing them.
Though it was not actually acknowledged at the time of the film’s release, the story of Kit and Holly was loosely based on the real-life murder spree of 19-year old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, which began in December 1957 and ended with their capture in January 1958. Although the pair became a much-feared presence across Nebraska and Wyoming, the couple seemed to exist within their own world, equally infatuated with each other and separate from everyone else. Though from a happy home, Starkweather was an awkward boy growing up, cursed with bowed legs, a speech impediment and no ability for schoolwork. Developing a severe inferiority complex, he began to identify himself as an outsider of society, a rebel, an image very much constructed by his viewing of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Fugate herself was no great success in school, and found herself drawn to more exciting boys, the more rebellious type, boys like Starkweather. When the two got together, both of their parents advised Fugate against the relationship, knowing that Starkweather was bad news. Ultimately, these warnings proved true, as the pair would eventually go on a two month long spree that saw them kill a total of eleven people, including Fugate’s mother and stepfather. After being caught, Starkweather was eventually executed for his crimes, while Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, though she was released after 17 years… hell of a story, isn’t it?
The thing that drew Terrence Malick to the story of these two, often compared to some degree to Bonnie and Clyde, was not so much the actual criminal aspect of their journey, but their ‘lovers on the run’ story. In choosing to tell this tale, Malick focused on the nature of the romantic relationship that this pair could have whilst so dispassionately killing several people. The idea that Starkweather tried to make himself look and act like James Dean was a big part of this. Unlike Starkweather, Kit actually does look a little like Dean. His hair is similar; he holds a cigarette in his mouth in the same way; his dress sense consciously aping that of the big screen’s most iconic figure of youthful rebellion. He sees what he wants and isn’t shy about going for it. This is a big part of the attraction that draws Holly to Kit. A relatively closed off girl, still in school and easily led by a figure possessed of strength and charisma, she sees Kit as some with a sense of purpose, aimless as it may be. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but by God he’s getting there just as soon as he can. And Holly is an attractive prospect to Kit. He sees in her a kindred spirit, a restless soul looking to break free from whatever bonds happen to be holding her down. By “freeing” her, he gets to act out a kind of heroic fantasy to counteract the sense inferiority and rootless abandonment he feels; and she gets to accept a life more dramatic than her last one, where her mother is long dead and her father is a distant figure.
The real question about the couple, though, that lies very much at the heart of why Malick took on this story is this: how can these two people be in love when they are so cold and dispassionate about almost everything? Both Kit and Holly show little feeling one way or the other about what they’re doing, or even each other. On one of their afternoons by the river, before their criminal path begins, they have sex. Holly’s first time, she asks him if it went the way was supposed to, that that was all there was to it. He says it did, and yes. Holly doesn’t see what all the fuss was about. Neither does Kit. When Kit kills his first victim, Holly’s father, and takes the body down to the cellar of the Sargis home, he comes back upstairs with some news: “I found a toaster.” The unemotional reaction they have to almost everything is disquieting to say the least. Long into their spree, Holly describes herself and her situation: “At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah… like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” She’s currently on the run with a murderer, whom she certainly seems to be in some sort of love with, but this is how she appraises her current situation. It’s quite chilling.
The subtle cine-literacy of the film does a lot to push this mildly dreamlike haze of fantasy that rests over the film, since it is so important to both Kit and Holly that this journey they are on feels like a movie, at least to them. Kit’s allusion to looking like James Dean is mentioned more than once, and not just by Holly. He even adopts a stance like Dean’s character in Giant, shotgun resting across both shoulders with hands draped casually over both ends. Holly also constantly reads movie magazines, reading aloud parts she thinks Kit will like, like the facts and falsities of who loves whom in Hollywood. She even acts as our narrator, describing events in a manner akin to someone who’s read much but experienced little, utilising romantic clichés to recount the journey, referring to Kit as “from the wrong side of the tracks” and the importance of keeping their relationship from her father. Although Kit tells Holly that he likes her because she is mature for her 15 years (no giggling), she is still very much a young girl who has been dazzled by the easy laconic nature of someone who seems to have just walked off the movie screen. This is what keeps their relationship going. It’s what stops her from running any chance she got, and stops him from killing or otherwise abandoning her. Similar to the couple in Godard’s À bout de soufflé, this couple are kept together by the feeling of living beyond the rule of regular societal dictates.
However, what carries us along here is the barren nature of how the film unfolds, matching the strikingly empty backdrop of Montana. This sense of isolation here effectively means that we latch onto the two characters making their way across the state, just as they are getting lost in each other. It also encases us in the same feeling of separation from the influence of outside society and rules. Just as Kit and Holly come to know each other only within the context of miles of open sky and dustbowls, we too get to share in this insular world of their own making. Indeed, when they first spot a police helicopter that just happens to come along, there is a genuine feeling of something intrusive, of a world being shattered. For so long, Kit and Holly have went where they pleased, living off the land and what they could take from others, allowing themselves into anywhere they wanted, so when their world is now the one being invaded, it feels like something interrupted.
Malick’s hand over the film is one of an easy poetic style, but it matches his characters for a sense of emotional distance. Thanks to the two superb performances from Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, we can see everything about these two as they relate to each other and what’s around them. Malick’s script also gives us the required insight into how Holly feels about this boy who has swept her off her feet, in a manner of doing so. However, the visuals offer a more restrained look at the two. Whilst showing the gorgeous landscape of Colorado, we can also see what Holly doesn’t, either by choice or because she can’t. From here, we can see Kit’s simmering intensity, so often smoothed over by his easy-going affect. We see Kit’s need to make his mark, sometimes literally, in the world. He records messages for police to explain his motives and dispense the sage advice of the world-weary drifter. He also has a bizarre need to make marks with rocks. After the two have sex by the river, Kit grabs a huge rock and suggests they both smash their hand with it, so they’ll remember the day. When he is eventually caught, done by his own choosing, he waits for the police to catch up by building a small pile of rocks by the side of the road. Why? So they will always be able to tell where they caught the outlaw Kit Carruthers. When an officer tells him, “You’re quite an individual, Kit,” he answers, “You think they’ll take that into consideration.” It’s a strangely defiant line, as if Kit jokingly expects a certain degree of leniency because the judge likes his style.
Badlands is a great film, so subtle and sparse that it’s barely told at all. It’s a slow and steady pace, beautifully shot and showcasing two superb performances from Sheen and Spacek.