The girls, they love a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules, and Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is certainly that. With his sideburns, pompadour and broodingly intense manner, Kit has the James Dean thing going on big-time, and his pet teenybopper, Holly (Sissy Spacek), is just wild about him. But while Kit may look like he just stepped off the set of Rebel Without a Cause, unfortunately this rebel does have a cause: he's a serial killer, cruising through the Midwest, leaving a path of corpses in his wake and taking Holly along for a wild ride.
Hopefully, this all doesn't make Badlands sound like a more romantic picture than it is, for while the film does capture some of the awful, Bonnie and Clyde glamour of these two, what we mostly feel for them is pity tinged with revulsion. Kit has the swagger and the cool of a teen juvie, but he's actually a sub-par garbage man who is 10 years older than his jailbait girlfriend. Holly, for her part, is a "good girl" from a "good home" who is happy to tag along on Kit's murder spree if it means she can escape the suffocating, suburban, vanilla goodness of her life. Kit's a dumb psycho who kills pretty much anybody who crosses him (including, early on, Holly's dad), but he also seems to think that murder makes him a nonconformist, a bigger man than the loser who used to lug sacks of people's trash around. Holly has been lost too long in her world of pulp fiction and movie magazines, and when Kit comes along, she's so desperate for a real, live romantic hero she'll follow him straight to hell without looking back.
At least, that's my take on the pair. But part of the beauty of Terence Malick's 1973 film is that any two viewers can come away with two entirely different, entirely justifiable takes on it. Some critics have seen the picture as a scathing indictment of the American media and the way it makes heroes out of bloody zeroes like these. Others have seen it as a critique of the nation's shallow values, of a culture that pumps dumb kids full of big dreams and no way to realize them. Kit and Holly have been held up as countercultural heroes (this was 1973, remember) nearly as often as they've been cited as the poster children for the banality of evil. The film simply presents this ghastly couple, records their ghastly doings, and leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions.
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The film's style is cool and remote, featuring a chillingly bland narration by Holly. Tak Fujimoto's cinematography sometimes lifts us right out of the action: suddenly, we see these characters lost amid the awesome beauty of the Montana plains, and they, their crimes and their victims hardly seem to matter any more; they fade to insignificance, upstaged by the unchanging, uncaring natural world.
Martin Sheen has now been a puffy, avuncular, respected character actor for so long that it's a shock to look back and see what an intense, wiry little rooster he was when he started out. Looking quite a bit like one of his sons (well, his sons back before they themselves started looking puffy and avuncular), Sheen plays Kit with such conviction that the role could have easily typecast him if anybody but the critics had seen the film when it came out. Spacek was well into her twenties when she played the 15-year-old Holly, but her tight little face and spooky innocence were extremely successful in putting across this raw, dangerously malleable girl.
The film was so effective that, with a mere three pictures to his credit, Malick made many critics' shortlist of great directors, even during the 20 years following 1978's Days of Heaven, when he didn't direct a thing. In our modern era, the only neophyte director who would be granted hype like that would be Tarantino during that brief spell between Pulp Fiction and his countless small disappointments since. The difference between the two directors is that with time, Tarantino's ultraviolent tales seem smaller and less true, while Malick's Badlands continues to stretch out before us.
Badlands screens at Chapman University, Argyros Forum, Room 208, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 744-7694. Mon., 7 p.m. Free.