Badlands (1973) was a film that had an ominous reputation for me growing up. As a fan of post punk artists such as Nick Cave and The Scientists, they often referenced Badlands as a brutally violent masterpiece that inspired their most dark murderous works. When I did eventually sit down to watch the film, I realized why it had such a fearsome reputation. It wasn’t that the violence depicted in Badlands was particularly bloody or visceral, it was just violent in a completely emotionless, haphazard and meaningless way. It wasn’t like these were crimes of passion. They were more crimes of boredom, or an attempt to feel, anything, if only for a moment. It was as if the only way to quantify one’s life was to take control of another’s and utterly annihilate it. The only way to make your existence mean anything was to gain infamy in utter destructiveness, and then they might notice you. Your existence confirmed by a cruel and indifferent world.
The director of Badlands, Terrence Malick, is an all but recluse who refuses to grant interviews or allow photos on set. He was a Rhodes Scholar, but dropped out of Oxford to lecture in philosophy at MIT focusing on the work of existentialist philosopher Martin Heiddeger. Heiddeger’s questions around the ambiguous nature of being permeate Malick’s storytelling. He wrote for The New Yorker, Life and Newsweek before changing tack and enrolling in The American Film Institute centre of Advanced Film Studies along with such alumni as film director David Lynch and famed production designer Jack Fisk. Fisk would go on and work on all of Mallick’s projects including films Badlands as well as Lynch’s Mullholland Drive (2001), There Will Be Blood (2007) and was most recently nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The Revenant (2015). Fisk would meet his future wife Sissy Spacek on the set of Badlands.
Malick’s early life was troubled. His younger brother was badly burned in a motor accident that killed his wife while his other brother suicided after cutting his hand off after a failed music career. These harrowing experiencing and the cruel and inhospitable environment in Texas informed much of the questions around the meaning of life raised in this film. In a rare interview Malick described Texas:
I was raised in a violent environment in Texas. What struck me was how violence erupted and ended before you really had a chance to understand what was happening.
– Terrence Malick
Badlands is a great example of early 70s’ cinema. It plays into the 1970s infatuation with 1950s culture as seen in films such as Grease (1978) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), a film with similar themes of existential alienation. After the success of the independently financed production Easy Rider (1969), major studios were willing to back independent film by new artists. The shooting budget of Badlands was a modest $300,000 with Malick himself investing $25,000 of his own money.
The production was plagued with problems. During the filming of the fire sequence, a massive accident occurred. Special effects supervisor Roger George had bought an abandoned house to blow as a cosy cutting exercise rather than build an expensive set. After filling the house full of rubber cement, an inexperienced production assistant preemptively lit a match. The air literally caught on fire, and George and other members of the crew were badly burnt. This incident coupled with Malick’s habit of suddenly changing shooting locations, because he preferred the natural light of another area, caused many of the crew to quit the production. Despite the crew’s frustrations on the project, who can deny how beautiful the light is in this film? Malick is truly a master of elevating landscape into a mythic character in his films. In one of the most iconic shots of the film, Martin Sheen holds his gun behind his back while the sun sets. This was shot completely on a whim. After the majority of the crew abandoned the production, Malick went rogue with only Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek, Martin Sheen and a couple of other crew members staying on. Malick commented on the production’s descent into the wild west.
We were shooting on private properties without authorization. The police were looking for us, along with the IRS. We ourselves were on the run.
– Terrence Malick
Badlands was loosely based on the real-life murderers committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Anne Fugate in January 1958. The first mass murder event to take place in the age of television, it shook the heart of the American Nation. The couple was to 50s’ teen rebellion what the Manson Family was to the hippy movement. The world began to see the rebellious youth culture based around cars and rock ‘n’ roll as inherently dangerous. Starkweather idolized James Dean the hunky star of the seminal film of teen rebellion at the time Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and the murders could be seen as the ultimate act of nihilism without a cause. Starkweather was charming and handsome, the antithesis of what audiences like to associate with evil. George C. Scott, while seeing Badlands at its premiere, identified the heart of what makes Sheen’s portrayal of Starkweather so disturbing.
You are the most charming villain I have ever seen! You’re pulling for this horrible mass killer. You’re concerned about him, you feel for him. You’re attracted to him.– George C. Scott
While Starkweather was sent to the electric chair on July 15th, 1959, Caril Anne continually protested her innocence. Caril insisted that she was an unwilling captive of Starkweather. This contradicted Starkweather’s description of Fugate as:
The most trigger-happy person I ever met.– Charles Starkweather
A complete reversal of their characterizations the film, Starkweather accused Fugate of at least two of the murders committed on their rampage across the Badlands of America. She was sentenced to 17 years for First-degree murder. Malick met with Fugate while researching the film, but was contractually obliged to omit that it was based on a true story.
Fugate had hoped her portrayal in Badlands would help her tarnished image and portray her as an innocent victim of Starkweather’s murderous impulse. Disappointed, she described Spacek’s take of her as “psychotic.” However, she did praise Sheen’s performance, tapping him on the shoulder after a screening to say:
Charlie, you have come back to haunt me.– Caril Anne Fugate
The actors themselves were explicitly forbidden from researching or even looking at pictures of Fugate and Starkweather, and many of the details of the original case were changed for the production. For instance, Starkweather was reported to have committed rape and extreme violence against animals which are not shown in the film.
Killer-couple films preceding Badlands such as 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde and the 1950’s film-noir Guncrazy depict doomed romances fueled by lust and greed that explode ferocious mayhem on the American Landscape. There is no great romantic, passion behind the Holly & Kit’s murderous rampage through the American Badlands, even sex is treated as empty and indifferent in the shallow and valueless world the characters inhabit. If anything, they are trying to imbue their lives with meaning within the constrictive small-town environment of Fort Dupree, South Dakota, where there is little chance of social mobility or agency over their own lives. Holly’s life is completely constrained by school and a controlling yet emotionally unavailable father. The allure of Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean lookalike Kit, represents a freedom and rebellion she has never experienced in her 14 years on Earth. Kit sees a specialness and attractiveness in Holly, while the rest of the town sees only her ordinariness. However, as the film progresses, she realizes that freedom is not what awaits her, but an ever-encroaching, barren wasteland echoed in the empty plains if the Minnesota Badlands.
Kit is older and more aware, but despairing to make his mark in the world, eventually, in the face of his life’s undeniable mediocrity, resorting to violence. He desperately wants to be heard, but no one listens or cares until he meets Holly. Kit in another life, and perhaps with more directed ambition, may have been James Dean. But a lack of opportunity or motivation bar this as a possibility despite his overwhelming bravado. As a fierce individualist, who operates outside the confines of civilization, he firmly belongs in the canon of outlaws and cowboys mythologized in characters such as Billy the Kid, Al Capone and in Australia, the bushranger Ned Kelly. Perhaps there is a part of all of us that wished we could break out of the confines of society, if not violently, which draws us to this type of character, the loveable rogue, making his own rules with a heart of darkness filled with murder and mayhem. He reacts like a trapped animal or child when cornered. Both he and Holly possessing a childlike, fairy-tale view of existence and their place in the greater cosmos. Kit can be seen as a typical narcissistic personality type with an inflated view of his own importance. Malick describes the character in these terms:
Kit doesn’t see himself as anything sad or pitable but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and future generations. Like Holly, like a child, he can only really believe what is going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions, they’re all sort of abstract to him.
– Terrence Malick
Sissy Spacek commented that she was surprised when Badlands was first viewed by audiences, they didn’t see the humour in it, but now they laugh in screenings. I believe this speaks to how commonplace senseless acts of gun violence have become in our society. The dehumanized and pointless acts of aggression in this film now seem humanized and funny rather than the abhorrence they were when Fugate and Starkweather first rained their love in a bloody swathe across the Badlands. The kind of cold, barren love Holly and Kit share is now part of the course of modern life. Love is strange.