BADLANDS (2006) 

Martin Sheen
Sissy Spacek
Warren Oates
Ramon Bieri
Alan Vint
Gary Littlejohn
John Carter
Gail Threlkeld

Terrence Malick



Time: 95 mins.
Rating: PG
Genre: Crime/Thriller/Drama

While an impressive directorial debut, Malick's BADLANDS is an uncomfortable ride down the road of insanity many may find hard to enjoy. Based on the real life 1950's Starkweather-Fugate killing spree, this film attempts to illuminate the reasons behind these senseless murders, but doesn't exactly come to any grand conclusions. Which is probably why the experience leaves one feeling so empty. As humans we are fascinated by events like these, desperate to know why someone would commit such horrible crimes. However, when the reasons aren't forthcoming, the killers lose their humanity and we brand them as pure evil. How else can their actions be explained?

This is a visceral, chaotic ride that shows how easy it is for some of us to succumb to violence to solve our problems and how quickly one loses respect for life. The trail of human destruction is mesmerizing to watch, every death making one clamor for clarity that never comes. Malick and Sheen tread a fine line with their portrayal of our murderous "hero" – somewhere between insanity, arrogance and boredom. It's clear from the beginning of this dark tale that Kit's life is not going to end well. Unhappy with his job as a garbage man, the only joy he's found in his twenty odd years on the planet is his relationship with 15-year-old Holly (Spacek). She's the best thing that's ever happened to him and he's not about to let her go.

For her part, Holly's attracted to Kit's dangerous side (plus he looks like James Dean), but mostly goes out with him because she's bored with her life in their tiny town. She loves him, but with the innocence of a first crush, not really understanding the unruly passions she's stirring in her man. Their illicit affair makes her feel special, giving her something to hang her hat on. She senses Kit is not the most stable of people, but since he's usually sweet to her she ignores his moody behavior. Their first sexual experience leaves her less than satisfied and left to wonder why everyone makes such a big deal about sex. Kit refuses to discuss it, causing her feelings for him to begin to falter. He isn't the dreamboat she's been waiting for after all.

"At this moment, I didn't feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you're sitting there and all the water's run out of the bathtub."

This was supposed to be a glorious romance, like the ones in all the books she loved to read. Instead, it's a tenuous attraction between two people desperate for something better and stuck with what they've got. Things go to hell in a hand basket when Holly's father (Oates) finds out about their relationship. He forbids Holly to see Kit anymore, believing that once he's out of sight, he'll fall out of her heart. While that probably would have happened, that theory is never given a chance to pan out. Kit arrives at their home demanding that Holly go away with him. She's somewhat torn about leaving her life and her father is definitely against the idea. Unfortunately for both of them, Kit refuses to take no for an answer and helps her make up her mind by removing daddy permanently from the equation. Life on the run with the man who murdered her father is not exactly the future Holly had in mind when she started dating Kit, but it seems to be the only option left to her.

Knowing he's going to eventually get caught, Kit attempts to redeem himself by leaving a recording of his reasons for the crime behind. Unfortunately, he doesn't really have anything deep or meaningful to impart. Their many weeks on the road, with meager rations of food or water create a bond that can't be broken, yet it's clear to both of them that what little romance existed between died with Holly's father. Kit has become an animal Holly can't control, so she watches and waits for the worst to be over, providing a strangely soothing presence to his victims while they await their fate. In the end, she becomes tired of the isolation and rigors of the road, annoyed by his childish behavior and outlandish ideas. The desolation of the Badlands is creeping into her soul and she's too young to feel so old. The final sequence where they get captured is not as exciting as one would expect, but is more realistic than a big shoot out or lengthy car chase. Kit is somewhat pleased, knowing that his actions have made him famous. He always wanted to be someone different.

As explosive a character as Kit is, Holly is just the opposite, sort of going along for ride as a witness to his quest for respect and affection at any price. While she never actively participates in the subsequent killings, she doesn't attempt to stop them either. Her languid voice-over reveals a young girl disconnected to her surroundings and the unreal turn her life has taken. More than Kit, her character is the one that leaves you disquieted in the end. He's at least fighting for what he wants. She's adrift in her own life, refusing to take responsibity for how she got where she is. Kit was not forcing her to stay, so in essence she's as guilty as he is. Her real life counterpoint paid the price for her complicity. In the film, she walks away as unscathed as a person can be after witnessing such brutality. She thinks this experience is nothing unusual, expecting that she'll just return to a "normal" life, maybe get married and have kids, becoming, in essence, the film's bigger monster. That she looks so innocent sucks you into the charade.

I'm not sure boredom is a great reason to go on a bloody rampage, but it's really the only one Malick gives us. His point that the monotony of a life with no worthwhile choices can make a person "try anything once" (as Kit claims) to create excitement. While the desolate landscapes add beauty and depth to this story, they also, like the characters themselves, leave little for us to grab onto. Kit and Holly could be anybody, which I'm sure is what Malick was going for, but that makes their performances fairly one-note. Sure, Kit is crazy and you're never quite sure what he's going to do (he doesn't murder everyone he meets), but since this is a film about a killing spree I'd hoped it would be a bit more suspenseful. I guess I shouldn't have expected Holly to be interesting since I had the same quiet, dreamy, blah personality when I was 15. How many teenagers have you met that had something memorable to say? Most of us just barely got by, struggling to figure out the mysteries of adulthood. While BADLANDS is not the ground breaking cinema experience I hoped for, it is a rare, thoughtful piece that at least tries, like it's characters, to stand out from the crowd.

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