Certain films seem to exist outside time. They’re so enchanting that they suspend time’s steady march forward. Even after the ending, they leave the viewer feeling less like they just watched a movie and more like they traveled to another place. They create a world so enduring that it lingers and lives in the viewer long after its life on the screen. This has more to do, perhaps, with the mood–an inexplicable aura–of the film than any narrative elements. If these qualities were used as a sort of litmus test for the longevity of a film, then Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first feature-length film, would succeed wildly.
The story begins in the faded town of Fort Dupree, South Dakota in 1959. Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is a strikingly handsome yet almost futureless twentysomething who works as a garbage collector when we meet him. One day after ditching his garbage route early, he meets Holly Stugis (Sissy Spacek), a motherless fifteen-year-old daughter of a sign painter, standing outside her house twirling a baton, which right away establishes her innocence. We have already met Holly, however, in the opening scene where we see her in silhouette, sitting on her bed with her dog and sharing the story of her mother’s death from pneumonia through a voiceover. Her voice would go on to complement the film’s moment-to-moment unfolding throughout the film. Kit asks Holly to go on a walk with him, which turns in to a relationship, much to Holly’s father’s chagrin. He tries to prevent them from being together but all efforts are futile. Desperate and determined after being fired from hustling garbage and taking a new job in a feedlot, Kit sneaks into Holly’s house and begins packing a bag for her so the two of them can escape Fort Dupree. When Holly’s father catches him and threatens to call the authorities, Kit kills him. Kit and Holly then fake their own deaths by recording a suicide message and burning down the house. Thus begins their Kit and Holly’s killing spree, which takes them from sleepy Fort Dupree to the desert badlands of Montana.
Metaphors abound for the immensiveness of Badlands. The most apt comparison would be with classic children’s stories, most notably The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, which Malick said were his influences while making the film. Another major influence was perhaps the most iconic crime adventure movie: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Malick was a student of Penn and acknowledges him in Badlands’ credits. It would be fitting and profitable to consider Badlands not only as a student’s homage to a teacher, but also as an echo of the film itself. This theme of references across cinema plays an eerie if small role in Badlands. At several points, other characters say that Kit looks like James Dean. This comparison plays into the fable-like quality of Badlands. One of the effects of this quality is that the barrier between the film and the audience—the so-called third wall—vanishes in a way so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable. We are spirited away with Kit and Holly on their violent romp through the forgotten swaths of the Midwest. When other characters say that Kit looks like James Dean, it nudges him out of the space of character and into something closer to the bone. Here it is relevant that Badlands is loosely based on the story of Charles Starkweather who murdered eleven people while roaming across Nebraska and Montana with his girlfriend.
One of the most absorbing aspects of the film is the way in which it quietly subverts common cinematic tropes, of some of which one might have not even been aware before watching the film. An easy example is the dreamlike quality of the violence. Kit shoots and kills nearly ten people but somehow the violence isn’t shocking. If it were, it would disrupt the storybook mood of the film. One scene, in which bounty hunters raid Kit and Holly’s treehouse in the forest, unfolds like an elegant dance. The hunters emerge from the trees, and Kit takes cover underneath a sheet of leaves and branches. After he shoots all three of the hunters, the scene doesn’t linger on their wounds or their corpses. Instead, it quickly cuts to Kit and Holly striking camp, getting ready to set out on the road again. With each murder, Kit and Holly become more obdurate. Kit, for all his good looks, begins to take on a deranged air.
The effect that suffering has on a person is another narrative trope that Badlands complicates. It subverts the common belief that suffering expands a character’s empathetic faculties and instead makes Kit only more shallow. Indeed, suffering forms the precondition for the psychotic violence that he perpetrates and which drive his and Holly’s exploits.
Clearly and comprehensively engaging with universal subjects like suffering, violence, and the strange space between adolescence and adulthood makes Badlands a timeless film. Four years after the National Film Registry was founded, the Library of Congress added Badlands to its archives, further ensuring the film’s longevity. If adding the film to the country’s national archives means that Badlands is culturally significant, then it’s crucial to think through the ensuing implications rather than just accepting its canonization as a mark of quality. What might this selection mean? It helps to start by reading the messages of the film. One of the things that the film, and its enthusiastic reception, seem to say is that violence is a uniquely fundamental part of American experience. That Malick set the film in the literal heartland of the country reinforces this point. So what’s the benefit of knowing this? What can we gain from thinking about film other than the temporary pleasure of being swept away in it? We can see violence without the shock or with the shock mediated by knowing it is at the gnarled core of our country. Maybe this knowledge would constitute a better foundation from which to approach the incessant violence we encounter in our so-called reality.