Badlands is Terrence Malick’s first film and only a few directors have reached such virtuosity in their directorial debute. Other examples that come to mind are Orson Welles (Citizien Kane) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight). The film is loosely based on real-life events following the murders a couple had commited in 1958, in the United States. In 1993 the United States National Film Registry elected Badlands for preservation since they considered the film to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. The film inspired a singer-songwriter Bruce Sprinsteen and his title song Nebraska; Springsteen saw it on television.
I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died
(Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, 1982)
Springsteen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find at that time; that very short story can be juxtaposed to Malick’s film; O’Connor and Malick share their religious beliefs. One can wonder if Malick agrees with the title of the story; his oeuvre seems to confirm this assumption.
Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and a 15 year old girl Holly who start a killing-spree across the country. The way in which they end up together is peculiar to say the least. He seduces her and she quickly falls in love with him. They are both interesting individuals; we don’t know Kit’s background yet we can reconstruct Holly’s. At the beginning she says: “My mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man.” The act of keeping and burying certain important or symbolic items is present throughout the film; Kit does it often. Holly’s throwing out her fish after it got sick is of immense importance for understanding her character. She says that’s the only thing she did wrong. Since her father did not want her and Kit to be together, Kit shoots him. When her father died, his lips resembled those of fish; in Nick Cave’s words:
Well you know those fish with the swollen lips
That clean the ocean floor
When I looked at poor O’ Malley’s wife
That’s exactly what I saw
(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads, O’Malley’s Bar, 1996)
Since she threw out the fish and her father resembled one when he died, we may say that Holly felt guilty of her father’s murder. After his death, Kit burns Holly’s house while Carl Orff’s Passion plays.
The act of burning the house and Holly’s father killing the dog is, in part, what made Holly indifferent and empty. Everything she loved and cherished – was destroyed. Her indifference to the murders and the tone of her voice implies apathy; it can also be explained as a defense mechanism. When someone sees horrors and suffers greatly, one may become apathetic out of desire to prevent further suffering (he or she recedes as if into a shell).
Kit, on the other hand is psychotic; that very thing makes him an individual, different from the rest. At the beginning Holly says: “And as he lay in bed in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes he’d see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead.” Kit’s seeing her in “beautiful white robes” may imply that he longs for innocence and purity he cannot find in this world. He is certainly an eccentric character and the scenes in which the officers befriend him tell much of his character.
“Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if they’d have the doctor pronounce him dead, or if he’d read what the papers would say from the other side.”
Holly tells us this after a beautiful and simple shot in which Nat King Cole sings: “The dream has ended, for true love died.” Kit contemplates his path into eternity, he wants to be in contact with this world even after death; more importantly, he wants to know what people say about him. When the policemen finally catch him, he builds a grave for himself with the stones he found on the road. This line may remind of David Bowie’s lyrics from his last album Blackstar:
Oh, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
(David Bowie, Blackstar, Lazarus, 2015)
The last shot in the film shows the airplane soaring in the sky and we see a beautiful shot of clouds and the Sun. The airplane symbolizes the soaring of the soul into afterlife.