Malick’s film, starring Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed) and Sissy Spacek (Carrie, 3 Women), explores the crime spree of a young couple in the badlands of Montana. Sheen portrays aimless drifter, Kit Carruthers, a 25-year-old garbage collector who starts a relationship with Spacek’s, Holly Sargis, a teenager 10 years younger than him. After only two days of their companionship, Kit shoots Holly’s father dead, taking her with him across South Dakota. The two live in the countryside on the run, killing and robbing without remorse as they detach themselves from civilization and travel deep into the wastelands of America. Badlands attempts something original in its intent towards the crime genre, refraining from glorifying the true crime elements of its script while also gravitating towards an ethereal tone that is inherently transcendental; a key facet of Malick’s filmography proceeding Badlands.
It's important to consider the context behind Malick’s debut and the story of which he decided to base his film on: the Starkweather Murder Spree of 1958. Sheen embodies characteristics of Charles Starkweather, the perpetrator whom the spree is named after; a man who, after meeting and starting a relationship with a young 13-year-old Caril Anne Fugate, would kill her family and take her with him on a murder spree across America before being apprehended. Authorities, specialists, and psychologists know little about Starkweather or his intent; why he perpetrated such a spontaneous spree of remorseless violence. And so, the murders of 1958 have been the subject of speculation for decades.
The massacre acts as a basis, a steppingstone, for Malick to dispense commentary on the attitudes towards art and true crime; what is tasteful and what is ultimately exploitative as well as the inexplicability of youth violence and rebellion. In this regard, Badlands is effectively an artistic response to the contemporary crime dramas at the time of its release as well as a critique of America’s attitudes towards the relationship between romanticism and crime.
What is so undeniably poignant about Badlands is the way it establishes a contrast between the violence depicted and the atmosphere it aims to create. Malick refuses to indulge the viewer of excessive violence. Instead, the murders committed in Badlands are distanced cinematically, detached, and affectless in emotional intent. The two leads are shallow and without remorse. They don’t comment on the violence they inflict, nor does Malick give the audience enough information about the characters to generate a level of sympathy. The characters in Badlands are isolated, whether it be literally secluded in the deserts of Montana or isolated emotionally; Sheen and Spacek are purely bonded by some perverted dependency on one another, upheld by the violent psychopathy of Sheen’s charismatic criminal. As a result, the content of Badlands is ultimately vapid, with Malick refraining from overindulging in the gratuity of the crimes he is taking inspiration from.
Yet, despite the emotional isolation, Malick unearths a level of surrealistic transcendentalism in the film’s visuals and editing. Presenting an ethereal atmosphere is something that Malick established in Badlands and then became reputable for in his later work; his skill in being able to bring out romantic beauty through nature and cinematography despite the content of his scripts is startling in terms how subversive it is. Notably, Malick would attempt a similar feat later in the form of The Thin Red Line (1998), corresponding the emotional toll of war with the romantic perfection of the Guadacanal jungles. What could have been an emotionally detached look into the shallow depravity of two criminals committing meaningless wanton violence becomes a surrealist period piece on the beauty of the American pastoral and the magical co-existence it has with two aimless agents; wandering through the openness of the badlands and attempting to find solace in its expansive beauty but ultimately finding themselves isolated and trapped at every turn.
Terrence Malick can be regarded as a romantic filmmaker, an elusive artist who explores themes of rebellion, disconnect and the rejection of authority in favor of embracing the natural world. Badlands itself is a romantic piece in terms of its visual facets, with Malick crafting a magical atmosphere which seems to elevate the pastoral beauty of the American wasteland conjoined with the shallowness of the unjustifiable violence presented. It’s something that had never been seen before at the time, making Malick a pioneer of this respective cinematic form, stripping back the romanticization of violent criminals portrayed in contemporary cinema to instead focus on unearthing beauty from the natural world as a counter.