In 1973, The New American Cinema was well underway. The French New Wave had blown the doors of cinema open as to what was possible, and American movies like Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) and The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969) had broken down barriers and led the way for a new crop of young filmmakers. The closing film for the New York Film Festival was not only the impressive debut of writer/producer/director Terrence Malick, but it was also a unique and lasting look at the American criminal. Loosely based on the real-life exploits of serial killer, Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands also drew influence from French New Wave and American literature (mainly Mark Twain and Robert Lewis Stevenson). In this tale of criminals on the run in America’s Heartland, Malick wove together a fairy tale steeped in philosophy, American vistas, and role-playing.
While Malick was wrapping up his second year at the American Film Institute, he began work on the script that would become Badlands, “I wrote and, at the same time, developed a kind of sales kit with slides and videotape of actors, all with a view to presenting investors with something that would look ready to shoot. To my surprise, they didn’t pay too much attention to it; they invested on faith.” (Beverly Walker, Sight & Sound, 44.2, Spring 1975: 82-83). Jake Brackman, a classmate of Malick’s at Harvard, introduced him to Ed Pressman. Pressman was using money from his family’s toy company to get into the motion picture business and was impressed with Malick and his script. Malick put in $25,000 of his own money, and Pressman matched what Malick had raised at that point, bringing the budget to $350,000.
Principal photography began in Colorado during the summer of 1972. The crew was largely non-union and most of the principal players were working on deferments. There wasn’t even enough money to run dailies, and at one point production had to be halted so that Malick could take some re-write jobs just to raise funds. Upon completion, Warner Brothers ended up buying the rights to distribution for $1.1 million, just enough to cover the budget with deferments, and on October 15, 1973, Badlands was released.
Badlands begins with Holly (Sissy Spacek) in bed, playing with her dog. Her voiceover tells us about her father, the death of her mother, and moving from Texas to South Dakota. An innocent girl, giving a very innocent introduction to her life. Fade to black. Fade back in: an image of an empty alleyway. Cut to Kit (Martin Sheen), crouched over a dead dog. “I’ll give you a dollar if you eat this collie,” he says to Cato (Ramon Bieri). Already, Malick has established a connection between Kit and Holly using dogs, one alive and one dead. A metaphor that doesn’t even pull its punches when it comes to foreshadowing who will and who won’t be alive when all is said and done. Lloyd Michaels takes this connection a step further in his book, Terrence Malick, “Badlands proceeds through a series of binary repetitions: two dances, (“Love Is Strange” and “A Blossom Fell”), two testaments (the record left at the fire and the Dictaphone message at the rich man’s house), two boxes of relics (one set aloft and the other buried), two white hats (Holly’s father’s and the rich man’s Panama, which Kit appropriates).” (pg.28-29)
Kit and Holly meet, and there is no doubt that the two of them will become a couple. Kit is good-looking and combs his hair like James Dean. Holly is young, innocent, and along for the ride. She knows that Father (Warren Oates) would not approve of her dating an older man, who “comes from the wrong side of the tracks so-called”, but she goes with Kit anyways. After a short courting period, Holly and Kit sleep together, but it does not seem to matter much to either one of them, and Holly is just glad that it’s over with. “I was afraid I would die before it happened,” she tells Kit as they get dressed, the paltry air of death seeming to hang over their lives. Kit wants them to smash their hands with a rock to remember this momentous occasion. Holly declines, but Kit wants to keep the rock as a souvenir. He then pitches the rock he is carrying and grabs another one, this one smaller. He needs something of significance, just as long as it doesn’t burden him any.
Holly’s Father becomes angry that she has been with Kit, and punishes her by shooting her dog and giving her extra clarinet lessons. Kit shows up at the house with a revolver in his pocket and ends up shooting Father twice in the belly. Holly worries about her dying Father, but not enough to raise much of a scene. Kit moves the body into the basement and formulates a plan. He records a confession and fake suicide statement on a record which he leaves outside the house playing on a loop for the authorities. He and Holly gather a few belongings, douse the house in gasoline, set it ablaze, and take off to start brand new lives.
Holly and Kit leave town and build a treehouse in a nearby forest. It isn’t just any treehouse, it’s a fantasy’s version of a treehouse, complete with booby-traps and a password that changes daily. Carl Orff’s music (“Gassenhauer”) provides charm and whimsy to images of the two of them adapting to their natural surroundings. The exact amount of time that Kit and Holly are on the run is never stated, but comparing their exploits to Starkweather and Fugate, they are probably on the run for no more than a month or so. Not a lot of time to construct such an intricate and well-developed treehouse. However, this movie is not rooted in reality, and the Starkweather case is merely a jumping-off point. Instead, this is a fairy tale, and Malick wanted to construct a story more akin to Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island. Even though the movie is set in the 1950s, Malick keeps all period details to a minimum, in turn, enhancing the timeless qualities of the events. “Perfectly re-creating an era didn’t interest me. […] Moreover, if you make a successful film about the past, there is no way to avoid nostalgia. So I tried to keep the references to the fifties to a bare minimum […] I didn’t want to be too realistic, too precise, since I wanted to create a fairy-tale quality,” Malick told Michel Ciment (Postif 170, June 1975: 30-34). It is here, in the forest, that Badlands breaks into a fairy-tale-like logic, and Kit and Holly break into mythic forms of themselves. The slaying of the Father, the burning of the house, both signify a break from the real world. The two of them live here, among the forest, their own little nation of two.
Outside forces converge on Kit and Holly, and a group of men comes to capture Kit. There is nothing about the men that say otherwise, but judging by their appearance, they are probably a part of a posse formed to capture the two. Kit claims that they are bounty hunters, and dispatches them, even shooting two of them in the back while they try to run away. Kit and Holly get away this time, and drive to Cato’s place, a dilapidated shack barely fit for habitation. Cato acts like he might be a friend to Kit and Holly, but there is a moment of doubt, and Kit shoots Cato in the belly. Cato slowly dies on his bed while two of his friends (Bryan Montgomery and Gail Threlkeld) show up in a Studebaker. Kit takes them hostage in a tornado shelter and kills them, raising the body count to seven. During filming, Malick directed Sheen to think of the gun like a magic wand, making problems disappear, be it is a Father that doesn’t approve, a couple of kids who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a football considered to be excess baggage. Kit has a lot of problems, for as Holly says, “Kit was the most trigger happy person I’ve ever met.”
Kit and Holly take off again, this time deciding that it would be easier and less conspicuous to rob a house for supplies rather than shop in town. They target the home of a rich man (John Carter) and take him and his deaf maid (Dona Baldwin) hostage. For the first time, Kit doesn’t kill the hostages, and in the Sight & Sound interview with Walker, Malick reveals that this scene is crucial to understanding who Kit Carruthers really is:
Kit doesn’t see himself as anything sad or pitiable but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and to future generations. Like Holly, like a child, he can only really only believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions—they’re all sort of abstract for him. He thinks of himself as a successor to James Dean—a rebel without a cause—when in reality he’s more like an Eisenhower conservative. “Consider the minority opinion,” he says into the rich man’s tape recorder, “but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s been accepted.” He doesn’t really believe any of this, but he envies the people who do, who can. He wants to be like them, like the rich man he locks in the closet, the only man he doesn’t kill, the only man he sympathizes with, and the one least in need of sympathy. It’s not infrequently the people at the bottom who most vigorously defend the very rules that put and keep them there.
Malick doesn’t want his characters to get comfortable and makes his one and only film appearance as the rich man’s friend. When one of the actors failed to show up for the scene, Malick stepped in, almost as if he is urging Kit and Holly to get a move on. Kit gathers Holly and a myriad of objects and takes off again, this time in the rich man’s Cadillac. Before leaving, Kit locks the rich man and his maid in a closet and then leaves them, but not before wiping his fingerprints off the door. Kit is clearly playing everything off the cuff. Kit is not an actual criminal, but he does play one on TV. Sheen plays Kit like Kit is modeling himself after Charles Starkweather.
Kit and Holly take off and out of South Dakota. Forced from her father’s house, from their idyllic home in the tree-house, and now from the state of South Dakota, Holly realizes that she is fully on the run, and the varnish starts to wear off. She is reserved and keeps to herself, “I wrote out sentences on the roof of my mouth where no one could read them.” Kit seems to understand that he is losing Holly, but at this point, he is more concerned with solidifying the name Kit Carruthers in the annuals of history. That moment comes when they stop to gather run-off gas from a pump. The gas attendant (Ben Bravo) is uneasy and asks Kit who he is. Finally, the moment that Kit’s life and murderous rampage has been building to finally comes, “Name’s Carruthers, and I shoot people now and then, not that I deserve a medal.” Kit’s transformation from an everyday nobody to an actual individual, complete with a slogan, is now complete. No sooner than Kit has his moment than a helicopter makes its way to apprehend Kit. Not surprisingly, Kit is thrilled to see that the day has finally come, even admitting that he figured that today would be the day. Holly also sees the end of the line coming and refuses to make a break for it. Kit gets away and Holly surrenders, the final curtain is coming down.
The cops pursue and Kit finds himself in the middle of a bonafide car chase. Kit fires his gun behind him, not to hit the police cruiser, but to egg them on. He adjusts the rearview mirror, not to see them, but to make sure his hair looks perfect. Kit does manage to get the better of the cruiser and he could make a break for it, but chooses to surrender instead. Why does Kit turn himself in? Holly muses that maybe he was tired of running and that he would have just gotten caught the next day. Kit gives himself up because getting caught finalizes his identity as the Kit Carruthers, it is impossible to have a story without an ending. Kit shoots out his own tire, builds a cairn to mark the occasion, and raises his hands high over his head. Sheriff (Gary Littlejohn) and Deputy (Alan Vint) cuff him and take him away.
Awaiting a plane to fly Kit and Holly back to South Dakota to stand trial, Kit holds an impromptu press conference with the cops and tosses them his personal effects. Holly’s narration tells us that he fell asleep while his confession was being read, and six months later he was put to death. “You’re quite an individual, Kit,” a Trooper (John Womack Jr.) tells him. “Think they’ll take that into consideration?” Kit asks.
Malick loosely based his script on the real-life exploits of Charles Starkweather, a serial killer who slew 11, 10 of them, killed between January 25 and January 29, 1958. Charles Starkweather was 19, a high school dropout, and had an obsession with James Dean. On November 30, 1957 (Terrence Malick’s 14 birthday) he robbed, shot, and killed Robert Colvert when he wouldn’t sell him a toy dog on credit. This led press to call him “The Mad Dog Killer.” From January 25 to January 29, 1958, Starkweather killed 10 more in Nebraska and Wyoming. He was captured and sentenced to the electric chair on June 25, 1959. Malick toned the killing down from 11 to seven, excluding the stabbing, strangling, and murder of two dogs (there are two dead dogs in Badlands, but they do not meet their ends due to Kit), and changed the ages to better fit the actors.
Caril Ann Fugate was 13 when she met Starkweather. On January 21, 1958, she came home to find that Starkweather had killed her stepfather and mother, and then killed her two-year-old baby sister. She and Starkweather holed up in the house for another six days, until they fled across the state of Nebraska. After she was apprehended, she admitted to holding a young couple at gunpoint while Starkweather robbed them. The couple was later found dead due to gun and knife wounds. Fugate became the youngest woman in the United States to be tried for first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 1976 and currently lives in Michigan.
The 14-year-old girlfriend interested Malick more than any other aspect of the crime spree. “I wanted to make a film about an adolescent girl. We’re more open as teenagers. We ask ourselves questions that we later avoid,” Malick told Ciment for Postif. The movie is seen through the eyes of Holly and our primary source of information comes from Holly’s stream-of-consciousness narration that accompanies the entire film. Uniquely, the narration does not comment on the actions taken by herself and Kit, it logs Holly’s thoughts and daily happenings, reading more like a diary than a confession.
The most poignant (and often quoted) moment of narration comes while Holly is looking through her father’s stereopticon, “It hit me that I was just a little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who had just only so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought: where would I be at this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment. If my mom had never met my dad? If she had never died? And what’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like? What’s he doing this very minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me? Does it show on his face?” Holly realizes that this moment is significant to her, but is it significant to others? At the end of the film, she says that she marries the son of the lawyer who got her off. Did she ask him what he was doing at that very moment? Does she even remember?
I got a question for you. You like people?
They’re okay I guess.
Then why’d you do it?
I don’t know. I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Just not this big a one. Takes all kinds.
The Deputy asks Kit the one question family member of every victim wants to ask, “Why’d you do it?” Kit thinks for a second, and answers as honestly as he can. It’s the answer none of us want to hear, “I don’t know.” Then it’s the answer we all dread, “I always wanted to be a criminal.” Some boys want to grow up to be policemen, astronauts, paleontologists, or doctors. Some of them, want to grow up to be criminals. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says during the opening of Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990). Hill narrates his life in voice-over, much like Holly does here, but he points out all the different places and moments where he was forced or the situation called for him to act in a less than savory manner. Yet, the truth still holds, “I wanted to be a gangster.”
In their book-length study of Malick’s first three films, The Films of Terrence Malick, James Morrison and Thomas Schur point out that the treatment of Kit is unique to American Cinema, “In place of visceral pathos, Badlands exhibits somber, clear-eyed sympathy, detached without seeming entirely remote, critical without seeming entirely reproachful. The other films of this cycle diagnose the pathologies of their characters with superficially—it’s the repressive law that made them criminals—or, as dimension of their bids for hipness, not at all.” (pg. 9) Kit’s past is completely opaque, and the audience is given no explanation, no insight into what drove Kit to this murderous rampage. Unlike Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) which constructs and depicts a series of events that relentlessly hurdle Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) toward an inevitable eventuality, Badlands keeps back story and period details sparse, so sparse that the audience has no choice but to see themselves and their time reflected back at them. Badlands doesn’t try to explain why Kit wants to be a criminal, it just shows the audience that he is and that he’s a pretty good one at that.
Whether he knew it or not, Starkweather would introduce the American public to a new threat, the ruthless serial killer. His cinematic counterpart, Kit, would hail a new type of movie character, the self-conscious criminal.