But that's where the comparison ends for "Badlands" is embedded in a vision that goes beyond the pretension of entertainment Arthur Penn could be accused of, it's filled with such a dazzling imagery and hypnotic amazement toward the world of nature that it has created an experience that stands above the usual tropes of the criminal romance, it's not much the story of Kit and Holly we follow but a sort of nihilistic escape from common morality as if even the troubles of two little people wouldn't amount to much in a world that has so much beauty, and poetry, to offer.
It doesn't make the experience any easier because there's something disturbing in the way Kit, played by a James Dean-like Martin Sheen, embraces violence, it's not a form of expression, it's not rebellion, in a marginal way, he can eventually invoke a twisted interpretation of self-defense and it's not even sadistic enjoyment because he seems like a rather emotionless man and when he does display emotions, he becomes an easily relatable fellow. One of the key moments in the film shows him going along very well with the cops who arrested him, "Good luck, Kit", says the younger of them, "I mean it", he needs to add. At the end, everyone grows a liking on Kit. Should we as well?
How about Holly then? She's played by Sissy Spacek who's nine-year older than her character, foreshadowing her following iconic role as Carrie. Holly is a sweet freckle-faced teenager who should venerate Paul Anka and Pat Boon but she chose that greaser named Kit, she never tried to stop Kit, and never showed any remorse. This is not your usual crush on a bad boy, in her total dedication to Kit, there's something even more disturbing, more sociopathic about her psyche. As a matter of fact, she's the one providing the narration, and it sounds like some bucolic description of a summer romance, something a dreamy teenage girl would write in her diary. The ambivalence in Kit and Holly, 25 and 15 respectively is in the way they seem capable to express feelings toward each other but never uses their heart one second to feel for their victims, including her own father.
The film was loosely based on the real-life case of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate but I found a kinship with another masterpiece of 1967, Richard Brook's "In Cold Blood", the recollection of a family massacre committed by two young hoodlums who never looked like they could pull such a horrific crime. Scott Wilson played Dick Hicock, the most easy-going one and yet during the fateful night, he wanted to rape the daughter while Peter Blake's Perry Smith "prevented" the act, but to dramatic results anyway. Truman Capote came to the conclusion that the two alone couldn't have killed anyone but together they formed a third personality that did. I endorse that diagnosis to the point I would consider "Badlands" an "In Cold Blood" with a romance, it's just as horrific but with a detached cynicism that disguises powerfully as a poetry of evil.
I guess the key is in that opening scene in a small town of South Dakota, Kit just left his garbage job and meets Holly who's practicing baton twirling in the front lawn. What she found in him: a boy who found her pretty enough to exchange a few words, which is more than what her estranged widower father, played by Warren Oates, ever did. What he found was a mature person who spoke more and better than girls her age and she could listen. They weren't special to the world, but special to each other. In another universe they might have spent a romance together and lived happily ever after in that cabin in the wood, just like Tarzan and Jane, masters of their own territory and destiny. Man is a wolf to man and so became Kit and by association, Holly. It just took the opposition of her father and Kit had no other choice than kill him, set the house in fire and take a toaster with him. Interfering with either their territory or destiny meant death, those who escaped could praise their good stars.
The rest is a classical road movie taking us in places where a girl like Holly would never have dreamed to visit, from the Montana landscapes to some exotic countries in her father's Stereopticon. Malick nourishes his film with lyrical photography showing plants, flowers and insects, what became his trademark (to a point I criticized in "Tree of Life") but there might be a statement, a sort of alibi to the whole amorality. Maybe there's so much beauty in this world, that the actions of Kit and Holly become incidental, even beyond their own conception of evil. In a crucial scene, Holly talks to man who's just been shot in the guts and is living his last moment, she doesn't realize death perhaps maybe because she doesn't even grasp the essence of life. Maybe the only solution is to hang on nature and accept it as the overarching force of the film, the true canvas of whatever goodness can make this world worth living.
Of course one can't ignore the beautiful piece of music from Carl Off and George Delerue, one of the melancholic ballads inspired Hans Zimmer"s "True Romance", but in comparison, Alabama and Clarence are boy scouts. The real mystery of "Badlands" is how could we make a film so beautiful about such despicable characters but how can such a beautiful place be ever called "Badlands", that belongs to cinematic metaphysics.