Loosely modeled after the Starkweather killing spree in the late 50’s, Badlands shows us where a love-stricken man with no concrete prospects may go, especially when he has a young, bright-eyed, and naïve girl in tow. After literally walking away from his job at a garbage route, Kit finds Holly twirling her baton in the front yard of her home. The two go for a walk down the street where Holly informs Kit that her father wouldn’t approve of her talking with a garbage man, their conversation is then cut short by her father. Holly’s father (Warren Oates) is a sign painter who takes a stern hand with his daughter, possibly worsened by the death of his late wife. He tells Holly to stay away from the much older Kit. Kit finds a new job as a ranch hand tending cattle, he and Holly continue to steal time together, and the two slip into a fairy tale romance. Much like a fairy tale, they eventually face an obstacle, that obstacle being Holly’s father. He being so against the two of them and angered at Holly’s defiance of his rule that he shoots her dog in front of her. Kit has had enough of attempting a banal life in which he can only clandestinely be with Holly, he murders her father and the two run off together. They spend time in various transient living situations, but the beat of living on the road begins to take its toll on the fugitive couple.
Viewing Terrence Malick’s debut film Badlands forty years after its release one can’t help but search for signs of his more recent work, where it all began. In Sissy Spacek’s voice over in the opening shot as her character, Holly, describes her mother’s death, the free spirited nature of the film’s aesthetic surrounding tortured protagonists. Maybe it’s in the evocation of life’s transitory nature as Holly looks upon a pair of children innocently playing in the street after Kit (Martin Sheen) murders her father. The mark of Malick’s unique eye is apparent from the start. Terrence Malick is an auteurist filmmaker in every sense of the word. He writes his own screenplays and renders them on the screen with a transcendent sentimentality. Where one filmmaker may have seen a bloody tale of murderous lovers, Malick saw a disenfranchised young man with a naïve teenage girl living life on the fringe.