The film career of Terrence Malick began in 1972 when, after two years studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the former Rhodes scholar began work on his first feature, Badlands. A deeply atmospheric, myth-driven retelling of the infamous 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, Badlands explores the phenomenon of innocence in the midst of that most disturbing of evils—the evil of the everyday. Citing influences such as The Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, Malick has stated his intention of capturing the concept of “innocents abroad”—of innocence in the face of overwhelming drama. Indeed, the focus of Badlands is on the curiously sedate mindsets of its characters who witness and partake in evil as if it were just another mundane activity to engage in.
Holly (Sissy Spacek) and Kit (Martin Sheen) live out a Bonnie & Clyde road-trip fantasy in the film, and their interactions, voiceovers, and demeanors allude to a genuine disassociation from the concept of sin; or more specifically, their sin. Kit kills people right and left and Holly watches with bewildered detachment; neither seems to associate exterior circumstances with their interior thought. Malick himself described Kit as a child who “can only really believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions—they’re all sort of abstract for him.” It is no accident that Sheen greatly resembles James Dean in the film. The character of Kit is truly a rebel without a cause. We never know why he does what he does, and apparently neither does he.
What, then, are we to make of this seemingly arbitrary, inexplicable, “innocent” sin? The film is completely uninterested in explaining the causes of its characters’ behavior or judging their amoral actions. Malick’s point is perhaps that judging or explaining human action covers up for the fact that our world and values are more fragile than we think, and unable to account for certain human possibilities. The implication of this notion is that sin and evil inhere within nature itself; within the everyday.
A consistent biblical allusion in the films of Malick is certainly Eden, and Badlands introduces it beautifully. Kit and Holly are like Adam and Eve insofar as, post-“Fall,” they are less concerned with the fact that they’ve sinned than they are with their “nakedness” and the necessity to hide from God. Kit and Holly hide out in the trees from pursuing authorities. They’re constantly on the run–a guilty couple expelled from the Garden, evading capture as well as ownership of guilt. The parallel to the Genesis story climaxes near the end of the film when Kit and Holly dance in the cold prairie darkness to Nat King Cole’s “The Blossom Fell.” The classic scene evokes the dread of sin and consequence, of paradise lost: The dream has ended / for true love died / the night a blossom fell / and touched two lips that lied.
The rest of Badlands is an extended chase sequence as Kit and Holly evade authorities, but it’s also a search to recover the innocence lost and to reconcile the self with some sort of pure, forgotten ideal. In his essay, “All Things Shining: The Struggle for Wholeness, Redemption and Transcendence in the Films of Terrence Malick,” Ron Mottram notes that central to film is “an Edenic yearning to recapture a lost wholeness of being, an idyllic state of integration with the natural and good both within and without ourselves.”
In Badlands, as with Malick’s other films, this yearning is often represented in the beauty of the natural world–which in spite of industrialization, war, and other sorts of human folly still stands as one of our most persistent and powerful signs of a higher good. The peace, calm, and indifference of nature form the constant backdrop to the human dramas of Malick’s films and often overshadow the narratives. Images of nature—beautiful and menacing—pervade all four of his films, though to different degrees. In Badlands, natural sounds and images are everywhere (birds, dogs, fish, flowing water, trees), though in relation to Heaven, Line, and The New World, nature is much more distant. The plains of South Dakota, the badlands of Montana, mountains far off on the horizon: it’s as if Eden—or epiphany—is out of reach. Nature feels distant, cold, fabled in Badlands, reflecting the widening distance between Kit and Holly “the mythical outlaws” and Kit and Holly as they were created to be.
Badlands ends, as does Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, with a climactic chase scene in which the male protagonist flees pursuant forces bent on killing or capturing him. In Badlands, Kit flees the police in a Dukes of Hazzard-esque dust-up, yet his motivation is less out of fear or obligation to life than out of a desire to gain a glorious notoriety and fulfill his pulpy myth through spectacular capture. He doesn’t hide or try too hard to evade the police. He desires an end for himself not as a redemptive purge of his rebellious behavior (because by all appearance he never sees his actions as sin), but strictly because a spectacular denouement is the proper end to his myth.
Kit and Holly never re-connect with themselves or achieve any sort of substantial understanding of the self as existing in the world. What motivates them, seemingly, is a desire to escape boredom and the mundane everydayness of life. They’re desperate for some sort of difference and thereby transcendence, and thus they embark on their rebellious, murderous misadventures. As Mottram notes, Kit “has chosen to trade his life for a fleeting recognition of his existence.”
Perhaps this is just another iteration of the original sin: Pride. We all want to be significant in some way–even if it means being a notorious criminal. In this way, Badlands can be seen as “a paean to identity, lost motivations, of what it means to be in the world and the difficulty of making a mark,” as Adrian Danks wrote in Senses of Cinema.
More than simply a morality tale couched in 1960s post-war nihilism, Badlands is a timeless tale of the human search for significance and the resultant battle between rebellion (pride/significance through freedom of the will) and redemption (humbly submitting to something bigger and recovering that union with creation and the Creator). Perhaps this is still a tension Malick is exploring… “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace.”