BY ALEX POTTER Terrence Malick averages about one film every seven years, but it’s always worth the wait — he is widely regarded as a director’s director and A-List actors wait in line to work with him. He has not made a film that critics don’t consider great. His new one, Tree Of Life is no exception. If you like that, you’ll like Badlands, Malik’s bleak, beautiful 1973 directorial debut, starring a young and very James Dean-esque Martin Sheen and the always-great Sissy Spacek as young lovers on a killing spree across the American prairie. Set in the Badlands of Montana, it’s a twisted American fairy-tale about growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, pointless rebellion, the fine line between infamy and celebrity, and the blood that stains the vast open spaces of the American West. Kit (Sheen) and Holly (Spacek), want to be Romeo and Juliet but the law and the land won’t let them — and so, there will be blood.
Badlands is based on events that took place between 1957 and ‘59, when 20 year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14 year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate [pictured, below left] went on the most notorious killing spree in American history since Bonnie and Clyde, starting with Fugate’s family. However, the the Starkweather-Fugate rampage was a lot less romantic and a lot more brutal than Malick’s script. Starkweather murdered Fugate’s mother as well as her stepfather and infant half-sister. When they finally were caught after killing eleven people in all, Starkweather blamed several of the murders on Fugate. The story of Starkweather and Fugate was the inspiration for Nebraska, arguably Bruce Springsteen’s best album. In 1994, Oliver Stone basically re-made Badlands as a post-Reagan pre-Millenial acid trip and called it Natural Born Killers.
Malik opens with Holly alone in her bedroom petting her dog while the camera roams around her pink bed andher voice-over dreamily spins a fairy tale-like prelude. She mentions her mother dying of pneumonia when she was little and her father raising Holly on his own. Kit first spies Holly twirling a baton in her front yard when he’s done collecting garbage for the day, probably reeking of trash. In a white t-shirt and blue jeans and wavy hair, he could be James Dean’s stunt double. Holly, who worships celebrity magazines, is instantly infatuated.
Sheen’s Kit is a soft-spoken, happy-go-lucky psychotic who never loses the twinkle in his eyes or the spring in his step even in the throes of defeat. When he shoots Holly’s father, not a hint of remorse can be detected, and Holly is shocked, but not saddened by the murder of her bullying, abusive father (Warren Oates). The scene is shot gently, almost mercifully. There is no struggle, and little blood. Sheen and Oates silently stare into each other’s eyes as the older man gives up the ghost and now Kit becomes Holly’s protector. Malick makes it almost romantic, like it wasn’t a murder so much as the rite of passage succession of father to husband.
Now fugitives, they torch the house and make a run for it. A devastating Carl Orff number is played while Holly’s home/childhood goes up in smoke. In the woods by a lake they build a fort with a tree house. Kit prepares for battle as if they were in Vietnam, setting up an elaborate system of booby traps for trespassers reminiscent of Never Never Land. A giant ball of wooden spikes swings like a pendulum from tree trunk to tree trunk, ready to knock the life out of a potential vigilante. Kit blows away a band of bounty hunters with relative ease, creeping up on them and assassinating them like Captain Willard did Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. After that, the murders become more frequent and reckless. He puts on a cool front but he’s panicked, trigger-happy, and increasingly paranoid. In one scene, desperate to do something pragmatic, he shoots a football because it’s excess weight in their car.
Curiously, Malik makes Holly the omniscient narrator, and her voice is knowing and world-weary despite her tender years. She sounds like 15-going-on 23 (Spacek’s age at the time), weighted with the knowledge that only she will survive their adventure. Holly decides to end the romance and deserts Kit when two men in a helicopter track them down. Kit speeds away in a stolen car and Malick makes us believe he might get away with it. With the cops hot on his tail, he veers off-road and into open country and the movie becomes a Western, with cars instead of horses. When it looks like Kit is going to get away, he sabotages himself by shooting out his own tires and surrenders.
Upon capture, Kit is an instant celebrity. One cop gushes that Kit looks exactly like James Dean. Another trooper even wishes Kit luck at his trial, even though Kit just murdered a cop hours earlier. Kit loves the attention, He primps before the perp walk in front of reporters. His Elvis is about to leave the building, but he’s on top of the world, high on the notoriety. Then Holly’s voiceover pops the bubble, informing us that Kit was electrocuted a mere six weeks later — and that she got away scot-free, just like Kit promised, and lived somewhat happily ever after.