Badlands is director Terrence Malick’s first film. Already his signature stuff is in place: simple story, voice over naration, and nature imagry is all here. I was pretty interested in seeing this film after loving Days of Heaven. I’m really getting to love Malick as a director; I’m lining up more and more of his films and I expect they’ll all be good or at least very interesting. Though I think Days of Heaven was better than Badlands, Badlands was still very good and intriguing.

Badlands is based on a true story: the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree back in the fifties. I love the tagline for this film: “In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.” Though the film is not reallly that funny, the tagline is pretty humorous to me, and it kind of reminds me of the tagline for Bonnie and Clyde as well: “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people”. Kind of a similar thing going on there. Despite this, I don’t think I really expected Badlands to be a lot like Bonnie and Clyde even though there are similarities. I just can’t see Malik doing anything that fun. Bonnie and Clyde is one of my favorite films, and even though it definitely shows the bad things that come along with being an outlaw, it also shows how fun it can be, how not boring it is, especially in the beginning. I felt like Malick with his normal sense of detatchment would not want to show it like this big fun adventure, and I turned out to be right. However, their killing spree does not look that bad either. It’s just kind of there.


Holly (Sissy Spacek) is a fifteen year old girl, twirling a batton on her front lawn and looking pretty darn bored. One day, this guy Kit (Martin Sheen) comes along. They start talking and eventually do more than talk. Her dad (Warren Oates) isn’t so happy about Holly hanging around a guy ten years older than her “from the wrong side of the tracks, so called” and tries to break it up. Her kills her dog as a punishment for disobeying him, and then makes her take clarinet lessons to “keep [her] off the streets.” Kit eventually decides he wants to leave town and take Holly with him. Doing this necessitates (or at least he thinks it does) killing her father. Holly takes it pretty well; though she is somewhat shocked initially she gets over it pretty fast. They leave, and set up camp in the woods somewhere.

I recently read an article comparing Moonrise Kingdom to this film.  For some strange reason I decided to read this before I saw Badlands, depriving me of any connection I could have made on my own. This part where they build a tree house in the woods really reminded me of Moonrise Kingdom; it’s pretty obvious and I would hope that I would have noticed even if I hadn’t read this article but I can never be sure. Everything from the music and the way Holly reads aloud to the fact that these two people ran away and built a tree house reminds me of Moonrise Kingdom. I think the connection is pretty valid and I’m mad that I didn’t give myself a chance to notice it myself.


The two of them stay in the woods for awhile, but eventually some guys show up looking for them. Kit shoots the guys and he and Holly have to leave. The rest of the movie goes on with them travelling around, Kit shooting people for no apparent reason, and Holly getting increasingly bored with the whole thing. She wants to go home (which is a problem because her house is actually burned down and all) and she gets her chance when the cops finally do catch up with Kit. He seems okay with it, even getting executed for killing all of those people.

He doesn’t seem to really care about much. He is always leaving things behind, like he wants to be discovered or something. He records his voice twice, the first time leaving a fake suicide note before burning down Holly’s house to throw the cops off the trail, and next when they occupy a rich guy’s house for a few hours. He professes his beliefs constantly, but they don’t seem based on anything. I feel like he just kind of goes with whatever is in his head and sounds good at the time. All the scenes with him and Holly getting all romantic seem forced, but I think that’s the point. They’re not really in love, Holly may have thought they were in the beginning because she’s a bored fifteen year old girl and she doesn’t know any better. By the end she realizes on some level that there’s not much to their relationship and she really doesn’t care about him that much. It’s like they are both trying to conform to some sort of image they have of themselves as romantic outlaws or something, but at the end of the day their hearts aren’t really in it.


The more I think about it, the more I feel that this story is so empty and that this emptiness is the point of it. Holly and especially Kit feel like they need to be doing something, just for the sake of doing it I guess. Unfortunately, this leads to him killing a bunch of people. Not that the film really shows this as a horrible thing; it just shows it as something that happened. Obviously killing random people for no reason isn’t a good thing, and I don’t think it ever gives Kit any kind of direction or purpose, just something to do for the time being. It kind of reminds me of “The Hollow Men”, a poem by TS Elliot that talks about that same kind of emptiness, and how people try to overcome it in brutal ways.

Badlands is kind of a strange watch. I did enjoy it though, even though it’s not very emotionally involving. I generally like Marin Sheen and he did not disappoint here.  Supposedly he is supposed to be like James Dean, but I’ve never seen James Dean in anything (I gotta fix that one of these days), so I couldn’t really judge. The only thing about watching this film that you have to watch out for is being preoccupied about the exact reasons Kit is killing everybody. For awhile I was really trying to figure that out, but it’s never personal so after awhile I just started thinking about it as an act itself and that helped. So, while I still like Days of Heaven better (I think it had a more interesting point and was presented more effectively), Badlands is still an interesting debut from Malick and I’m eager to watch some more of his films.


“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.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

16 responses to “Badlands

  1. Badlands is that near-impossible thing: a great American movie that was both an artistic triumph and a box-office success. The film is also beautifully photographed with no less than three credited cinematographers.

    Nice review Hunter. I hope you do get to check out some more of Malick’s work.
    By the way, did you notice in the scene where Sheen and Spacek commandeer a rich man’s house in the Midwest, and somebody comes to the door looking for the householder. It’s Malick in his Hitchcock-style cameo role.

    • I was really disappointed that I didn’t get to see this on blu-ray like I got the opportunity to with Days of Heaven. I’m sure it would have been amazing if I had though.
      I think I did read somewhere that Malick did have a cameo in this one, but I did not notice it when watching the film. In fact I don’t even know what he looks like. I’ll have to look out for him next time I watch it. Does he normally do cameos in all of his films, or just this one?
      Don’t worry, more Malick is coming! I have Tree of Life lined up in a couple weeks, and then To the Wonder a couple weeks after that (assuming theaters near me get it). I really like his work so far; he’s very interesting.

    • I’m fairly sure the cameo was a one-off.

      Whilst filming the scene, Malick realised that the actor he hired to play ‘Caller at Rich Man’s House’ had not turned up.

      Malick himself had to play the uncredited role and although he wanted to eventually re-shoot the scene with someone else, Martin Sheen reportedly persuaded him not to.

      • Well I won’t have to look for him in his other films at least. It can be distracting to wonder when/if the director is going to show up, the reason Hitch decided to do them early on later in his career.
        Ha ha! That’s funny! The dude has a small small part and missed his chance to be in the film! I’m glad Sheen told him to keep it in, because even though I didn’t notice Malick here I’m a big fan of director cameos in general.
        Thanks for the info!

  2. Superb film. I’ve always felt this had a Bonnie and Clyde-like feel to it. Like you, I prefer Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life remains my favorite Malick movie but this is still great. Nice review.

    • It kind of feels like Bonnie and Clyde, only more objective I guess. I think Bonnie and Clyde has a more light-hearted and exciting feel to it, especially towards the beginning before Bonnie starts getting all depressed and stuff. The set-up is very similar though, that’s for sure. Even how both Bonnie and Holly start losing interest towards the end, which I hadn’t even noticed until now.
      The Tree of Life is next of his on my list! I’m excited to get to it.

  3. Hi, Hunter:

    Excellent dissertation of a classic!

    A visual marvel for the eyes with its washed out colors and vast, beautiful, somewhat
    frightening flat lands.

    I always got the feeling that Sissy Spacek’s Holly seemed the more distant, damaged, near dead inside sociopath than Sheen’s subtly, fully defined Kit.

    In one of those films where you learn something new through nuance, inflection or detail with each viewing.

    PS: You’re invited to drop by ‘FlixChatter’ should you have a few free minutes.

    • Hmmm… that’s interesting. I never really thought about it. I mean, Kit does go around killing people so there’s obviously some sociopath there, but maybe that’s his way of self expression (terrible as it sounds). He also leaves all of the stuff behind and tries on some level to make a connection with Holly. Wheras Holly is just kind of there. She narrates but that’s about all. Interesting point.

    • Ha ha! There’s a funny (sort of) story about that. I was buying textbooks and I had some money left over on my giftcard, so I actually bought Rebel Without a Cause. Barnes and Noble decided to be a jerk though and spontaneously cancel my order! I’m still on the lookout for it. I’ve heard Dean was really good in Giant as well.
      Yeah, Badlands is pretty good. And if you’re a James Dean fan than you can see how Sheen compares. It’s an interesting movie overall, but I’ll admit Sheen’s performance was one of the highlights.

  4. I happened to watch Badlands for the first time the other day, I absolutely loved it. I also saw Days of Heaven as my first Malick film and loved it and told myself I would check out the rest of Malick’s films, and I finally got to Badlands, and I can’t believe I didn’t watch this immediately. It was fantastic and I am still reeling. But strangely I watched Moonrise Kingdom for the first time right before Badlands – I took them in back-to-back and really knew relatively little to nothing about them except for the directors, and though I am not a film expert by any means and wouldn’t have really thought of the connection, in watching them for the first time in succession it was amazing how similar they are, even in certain scenes that are almost identical in many ways. I actually also noticed that Badlands appeared to be ripped off completely by True Romance – but in doing some internet research found that Tarantino actually does credit Badlands as his inspiration for True Romance. But as far as I can find Anderson doesn’t give any credit to Badlands for Moonrise Kingdom? In watching the two together without any preconceived notions it seems impossible that Anderson didn’t rip off or was just plain inspired by Badlands just a little.

    • So have you seen all of them then? I’ve found that I can only take so much Malick at one time because his style is somewhat overbearing. If I space them out though, I still find I love what I’ve seen so far (this, Days of Heaven, and The New World, though I must confess that this one actually stacks up as my least favorite).
      I mean Moonrise Kingdom is not as similar to Badlands as True Romance, so maybe that’s why he didn’t feel the need to credit it? Also it may not have been intentional, after you see a ton of movies, it’s hard to remember where every inspiration comes from I imagine. You’re right, it seems impossible that he didn’t nod to it in some fashion, but artists all steal from each other anyway. It’s that fine line between referencing something, using it as inspiration and drawing from it more, and completely ripping it off. It’s hard to tell where things fit on the continuum sometimes.
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Badlands………….another American classic!
    I think Sissy Spacek is one of the great beauties of film and a fine actress. Sheen……is just extraordinary here (and in my opinion, he rarely puts a foot wrong in a long and very distinguished career)……..and I do think that James Dean was vastly overrated. There, I’ve said it………… name will be mud from now on! I’m just bored with all the superlatives laid on James Dean. The guy made 3 films……..and yes, he was very good in all three, but for people to keep saying, “OMG, James Dean, just falls a bit flat with me!

    • Badlands is another one I’m going to have to revisit one of these days. A great film but definitely a bit puzzling (in a good way).
      I have since seen one of Dean’s films and I’ll have to say I was very impressed with his performance, even though it felt like he was imitating Brando. It was in East of Eden, a movie I absolutely love. I’ve heard in Giant he moves away from that though, but I haven’t seen it myself yet.

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