Badlands (1973)

By Afra Nariman

Badlands (1973)

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Stars: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek

Plot Summary

Inspired by true events, a tale of love and crime that follows Kit and Holly from a dead-end town in the Midwest, all the way to the badlands of Montana. After abruptly killing Holly’s father, Kit and Holly flee and hit the road, leading Kit to go on an eventual killing spree as they try their best to avoid the authorities.


Love and crime go well together in films. There’s something engaging about watching a relationship develop, while on the road, avoiding the authorities. You could tell that this 1973 film by Terrence Malick has inspired similar stories for the last few decades, most notably the 1993 film, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, True Romance. Both display a relationship that develops very quickly and accelerates into a road-movie filled with crime. In both films, the girlfriend is the one telling us the story and narrating. And perhaps most noticeably, the music score in True Romance is a direct ode to Badlands.

Now, the story: After spotting Holly from across the street, Kit is immediately enchanted by her. After realizing that Holly’s father does not approve of him, he tries to talk to him about it but doesn’t win over his blessing. So, he eventually and abruptly shoots him instead. Yeah, Kit’s not the most morally driven guy… Anyways, although Holly is upset about this and even fears Kit, she admits that she believes her fate lies with him now and slowly falls in love with him too. They flee the scene, hit the road, and head towards Montana. Along the way, they spend some time living in a treehouse in the woods, surrounded by nature and life. After they are forced to flee once again, Kit becomes even more trigger happy and ends up going on a killing spree, shooting practically anyone who gets in their way. Kit is “hellbent” — as Holly puts it when she tells us that she would never be with the hellbent type again — on getting the two of them to safety to live a good life together. For much of the film, Holly struggles to separate her love for Kit with her fear and disapproval of his violently hellbent behavior. Eventually though, when the authorities close in on them, Holly decides not to flee again with Kit, which hurts him deeply, and as we see, leads him to no longer care much for his own safety or freedom after that.

Badlands is a visual ode to the country. On their journey, we see humbling shots of the vast and seemingly endless country, fields, grasslands, mountains and nothingness. The film begins methodically, but gradually reaches a surprising peak that kicks off an exciting and wholly immersive story. It’s beautifully paced and never has a dull moment. The film also does a fantastic job of not allowing serious moments to realize their full gravity. The serious segments never stick around and linger for too long, and are perfectly balanced with moments where their love overshadows their crimes. The reasoning for such abrupt violence is never morally or psychologically explained, though that’s what allows the film to stay light and fun, rather than dark and somber. Each segment of the film is also separated by the lovely, iconic music that defines the tone of the film. Martin Sheen was as good as he always is on screen, and his co-star Sissy Spacek played Holly elusively and brilliantly. This was Terrence Malick’s first film as a director and he managed to create one of the greatest films of the decade, one that has inspired and defined the crime/romance genre and one that still now, 50 years later, can still watched and enjoyed as a true classic. It’s a crime movie and a romance, as well as a road film.

Like I said before, there is something exclusively gripping about crime-focused romance stories that unfold on screen. They’re violent, yet don’t weigh heavy on your conscience. They’re fun and easy to watch, yet have a certain, light suspenseful element to them. Badlands is as perfect as a film could get from this genre. If you enjoy watching crime/romances, then this film will be amongst your favorites.

Malick’s Badlands is visually immersive with an emphasis on nature, the vastness of the country, and cinematography to match. The music is iconic and compliments both the story and the setting elegantly. In fact it’s impossible to imagine this film without its signature song. The violent and objectively immoral story of love and crime is grounded and eclipsed by the boundlessly humbling landscapes that serve as the backdrop to the story. The film shows us that our lives are just stories that play a part in painting the world’s endless canvas. Badlands is able to communicate its story to us in an incredibly simple, well-paced and enjoyable way.


Rating: 4 out of 4.

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