It's the late 1950s. Mid-twenty-something Kit is a restless and unfocused young man with a James Dean vibe and swagger which he has heard mentioned about him more than once. Fifteen year old Holly has a somewhat cold relationship with her sign painter father, if only because she is the primary reminder of his wife, who died of pneumonia when Holly was a child. The two meet when Holly and her father move from Texas to the small town where Kit lives, Fort Dupree, South Dakota. They slowly fall in love, something about which she cannot tell her father because of their age difference and Kit coming from the wrong side of the tracks. When he tries to take Holly away with him, Kit, on an impulse, shoots her father dead. After letting the initial emotions of the situation settle down, Holly decides voluntarily to go with Kit, they trying to make it look like they committed suicide in a house fire. But they soon learn that their plan did not work, there being a bounty on their heads. As such,...Written by
Soldiers at the end are wearing fatigues consistent with the mid-1970's when the film was made, with subdued pin-on enlisted rank insignia on their collars (including a very visible Specialist 4th Class in the front), and subdued name and U.S. Army tapes (black lettering on olive drab fabric tape) above their breast pockets. In the 1950's, enlisted ranks were worn full size on their sleeves, unsubdued yellow on OD green (same as for their class-A green uniform), the U.S. Army tape above the left breast pocket would have been yellow on black fabric tape, and the name tape above the right breast pocket would have been black lettering on white fabric tape. See more »
[voice over narration]
My Mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My Father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man. He tried to act cheerful but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. Then one day hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all these memories he moved us from Texas to Port Dupree, South Dakota.
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In January, 1958, nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather and fourteen-year-old Caril Ann Fugate went on a murder spree in Nebraska and Wyoming. Eleven innocent people died. Most, though not all, of the killings were random. Starkweather and Fugate's story "inspired" several films, including this one.
In "Badlands", the pair's names were changed to Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), and their ages were altered slightly. From what I have read, Starkweather and Fugate were emotionally detached and casual about the killings, especially Charles, once the initial murders had occurred. Both Sheen and Spacek do a good job of mimicking this nonchalant attitude. At various points throughout the film, Holly narrates the story in an emotionless, monotone voice. It's like she's reading a diary of what happened as we, the viewers, watch movie footage of the events.
The film's title is appropriate, given that the characters' inner lives must surely have been wastelands, and given that the film's plot takes place mostly outdoors, on the lonesome High Plains, with its brooding and "stark" landscape.
The film's color cinematography conveys a mood of desolation, especially in those scenes that contain little more than the horizon, expansive blue sky, treeless plains, and a couple of lonely desperados. At one point, the color morphs into sepia-tinted images of small town America, as the whole country, in fear, takes up arms against the fugitives, a photographic change that renders an almost documentary tone to the film.
From time to time, classical background music accompanies the senseless violence, a cinematic contrast so "stark" as to make the film surreal. And, of course, the sequence toward the end where Kit and Holly, with car radio on, dance in the headlights as Nat King Cole sings "A Blossom Fell", is truly mournful and haunting.
"Badlands" is incredibly understated and low-key, as detached as the characters portrayed. Director Terrence Malick conveys a simple, uninvolved story, packaged in a film that makes no effort to communicate either symbolism or thematic depth. Nor does the film render judgments about the characters or events. It's an approach that probably wouldn't work today. But it is effective, and through the years the film has gradually become more respected as an excellent character study of 1950's teen rebels without a cause.
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