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Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’ Is a Great American Love Story

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Some movies are so good that when they’re over, you almost expect the whole film industry to shut down. There’s no need to keep making movies because the perfect film has been made and you’ve just seen it. One such film is Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Loosely based on the real-life murder spree of a 1950s couple, it has crime, romance and even a car chase. Lest you think it’s a Bonnie & Clyde rehash, Badlands is also laced with questions about memory, loss and mortality. It was Malick’s first film and he was already touching on the themes that would define his career. Most striking of all, however, is the romance between the immensely attractive stars, Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. Forty years later, it’s worth looking back at Badlands for Holly (Spacek), a female character with more complexity than we’ve seen in any Malick woman since, and her relationship with Kit. They share a bond that’s ordinary and heartfelt and peculiar, all at the same time.

The film opens with natural light, voiceover narration and a 1950s suburban setting (Malick signatures). Holly sits on her bed, petting a dog, and we hear narration that sounds like the opening of some undiscovered Flannery O’Connor classic. “My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for 10 whole years.” Holly’s voice is soft, but don’t underestimate this chicken-boned naïf. She’s a classic American protagonist: a partial orphan, willing to take risks and keen on remembering details. Her father moved them to South Dakota to start a new life and we learn a few more things about him — he’s a sign painter and a disciplinarian — but other than that, he remains unknown. Yet the film could have easily been about him. That’s because Badlands is about outsiders and their inherent desire to take fate into their own hands. It’s about the longing for something newer, farther or better. Of course, it’s an illusion, but it’s those dreams that drive Kit and Holly and the love that grows between them.

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Kit (Sheen) is a garbage man with something to say about every piece of trash he picks up. He finds a pair of shoes, tries to sell them and then comments on a woman’s unpaid bills: “She’s gonna get in trouble if she doesn’t watch out.” Whoever this strange boy is, he’s certainly dashing. He’s compared to James Dean at two different points in the film and you can tell he loves it. When his shift ends, he’s got nothing to do (and nowhere to go) until he sees Holly, jumping rope on her front lawn. He walks up to her, says hello and that’s all it takes. Their fates are sealed.

Kit finds work on a farm, but you can tell by the way he kicks around in his jeans that it’s not where he’s meant to be. When Holly’s father interferes with their relationship, Kit shoots the old man and they take off together, burning the house down in their wake. It’s a mythic turning point; the moment a regular law-abiding citizen turns into a criminal and nothing will be the same again. The simple facts of their existence become sharper and more real than ever before.

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Is Holly a criminal or a captive? The question is too simple. Spacek’s silence belies a rich, internal world. She’s drawn to Kit’s individuality but never in a compromising way. She might not say much, but the film’s tone of inquiry is guided by her lilting voiceovers. It’s as though she and Kit are on some fairy tale adventure and she’s the one sorting through the results. Her watchful eyes and graceful movements speak to both her astute maturity and yearning adolescence. In one lovely scene, she shuffles through photographs in a stereopticon and questions the forces that have shaped her life: “Where would I be 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’d have never died?” We’ll never know… the point is in the asking.

The most fascinating aspect of Kit and Holly’s romance is its lack of eroticism. Indeed, their kisses are strange. Holly seems to loves Kit not for his swaggering, masculine cool but rather for his mind and the way he pauses from kissing her to say, “Everybody loves trout.” Witnessing moments like these makes Badlands into a love story like no other.

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As the couple roams from a tree fort to an isolated cabin, Kit doesn’t hold back his trigger-happy ways. His kills are sadistic but silent. They’re more like ideas than fatalities. He shoots people because they’re in front of him and for reasons we can only guess at… human life doesn’t mean that much to him.

Before Kit and Holly’s demise, they share a moment that’s neither daring nor spectacular. It’s the sort of moment that Holly will probably think about when she’s old and grey, remembering all the things that made her who she was. She and Kit are driving in the middle of the night. They don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing and Nat King Cole begins to play over the radio. They stop, get out and dance with nothing but the car’s headlights to illuminate the way. “We planned together to dream forever,” Cole sings, “The dream has ended, for true love died.” Did we hear that right? These lyrics are tragic. It’s Malick’s way of letting us know that Kit and Holly aren’t your average soul mates. Like Gatsby and Daisy, Maria and Tony, Annie and Alvy, their love is complicated — and doomed.

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The break happens fast. It’s a sunny day in the desert and a helicopter flies overhead and Kit reaches for Holly to start running. In a remarkable instant, filled with love, disappointment, anger and inevitability, Holly says no. She proves, once again, that a woman can be passive in demeanor but active in mind and spirit. She’s the agent of her life and she’s not going with him. If only the women in Knight of Cups could’ve acted with such quiet and unshakable strength.

Long after the film is over, what lingers aren’t the gunshots or the getaways, but the little moments that Malick is so good at capturing. He pays profound attention to detail: the way a car headlight shines in the dark, the way a picture frame sits on a mantle, the way a curtain blows in the wind. It’s these details that strike at the core of what it means to be human. Above all, it’s in the way Spacek and Sheen look at each other when they’re side by side in the car headed god knows where.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.

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