'They're young, they're in love...and they kill people'
That's not actually the strapline for writer/director/producer Terrence Malick's first movie, Badlands (it is in fact the strapline for 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Malick's mentor - who was given thanks in the closing credits of his protege's debut) but it could have been because it sums the plot up equally as well.
Based on the real life 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather, an 18 year old delinquent and his girlfriend, the 13 year old Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands tells the story of a teenage girl called Holly (played with a delicate, vulnerable brilliance by Sissy Spacek) living a life of stultifying small town boredom in '50s South Dakota. One day she meets an older boy, Kit (Martin Sheen in what will remain one of his finest performances) whose superficial charm hides a deranged and psychotic mindset. His violence is suddenly and irrevocably revealed when he shoots her disapproving father (the great Warren Oates in a strong cameo) in cold blood. Going on the run, hiding out in forests or crossing the desolate plains in a bid to reach Montana, Kit continues to murder with no remorse anyone who crosses their path whilst Holly's simple, remote narration plays over the events, speaking at first in romantic cliches before slowly, gradually offering her concerns like shafts of light on an overcast day.
When it comes to these young criminals in love and on the run, I'm reminded of the stance so superbly outlined in Jimmy McGovern's excellent Cracker episode To Say I Love You; Fitz the criminal psychologist played by Robbie Coltrane gets Susan Lynch's young killer Tina to reveal her love for Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. Asking her what her favourite bit is, she replies "The part where they look at each other" in the moment "just before they die". Fitz enthuses with her, claiming that he cried at that scene, just like she did too, before revealing his bluff "I wept buckets. I thought it was one of the worst moments in the entire history of Hollywood. I wept buckets for all the victims and all the families of the victims. You see, I've been to their homes, Tina. I've seen it. I've seen what violent death does in a family". Yes, I'm with Fitz there. Despite the technical flair and skill on display, I often find the dynamic of such love and bullets tales somewhat unpalatable. They remain popular because they pander to, at best, the teenage emo style generation who swallow the notion that its OK to be so violently anti-social if you've found your dream lover and at worst, people who get off on violence just as much as the characters within the tales.
Where Malick excels in telling his story is he offers no psychological explanation for the crimes of his lead protagonists nor glamourisation of their lives. He keeps himself and his audience at arm's length, inviting us to witness the remote unfeeling nature of Kit and Holly, as well as their shallow almost juvenile role playing - building tree houses and playing 'house', as if we are examining something alien or of another species. But he also displays their dangerous peculiarities with a humour too, albeit a chilly strange kind of humour. Look at how seemingly unable Holly is at comprehending the severity of situations; when Kit shoots his old friend Cato after suspecting he was all set to turn them in, Holly saunters over to his dying, dazed body with an innocent "Hi" and starts a conversation about his pet spider. It's a real testament to Spacek's child-like characterisation that this inability to be moved or alarmed by the crime amuses somewhat rather than appalls.
Malick too knows that these characters are living in isolation from the real world, yet ironically it is the general public who initially isolate them who find them so fascinating in light of their exploits. At its best, this sense of isolation and lack of meaning before their notoriety is beautifully conveyed when Holly looks through slides belonging to her father. As Spacek's floaty narration describes; “It hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me?”
Lyrical, beautiful and darkly absorbing, perfectly shot and with a superb score almost at odds with the action around it, I'd almost forgotten how bloody good this movie is. One of the true greats of late 20th Century American cinema.