A Killing Spree In The Badlands

So, there have been several movies based on the Charles Starkweather/Caril Fugate killing spree of the late 1950′s. Badlands, the debut of writer/director Terrence Malick, is one such movie, a rumination on alienation and loneliness.

Kit (Martin Sheen) is a 25-year old with no desire other than to live his little life on the fringe of society. He’s currently a garbage man, but he’s more interested in digging through the garbage and making his own hours than throwing garbage in the truck, so it comes as no surprise when he’s fired. Walking down empty alleys and abandoned streets, Kit stumbles upon Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year old practicing her baton routine. She’s also a lost soul, having moved from Texas to South Dakota with her dad (Warren Oates) after her mom died. The two loners immediately bond, but Holly’s father wants his daughter to hold out for something better.

Kit has finally found something on which to focus his attention and he’s not the type to let someone else get in the way of that, so when Holly’s father tries to stop them from leaving town, Kit shoots him, the first of his many victims. Holly manages to slap Kit and squeeze out a couple tears, but she’s not too upset about her father’s death and the two are soon on their way.

Until the final sequence, most scenes are of Kit and Holly living in their own world. As the two travel across the barren plains of South Dakota and Montana, the vast open emptiness underscores their encapsulated relationship. From what we see, they may actually be the only two people in the world. The only interaction with other people comes when they seek it out.

Holly’s diary-like voice-over is the only glimpse we have into the psyche of either character, but rather than explain why Holly (who never actually participates in any violence) is traveling around with a sociopath, we hear the thoughts of a young girl who is unable comprehend the gravity of her or Kit’s actions. At no point is the past of either character explored, so we have no basis for any justification for their actions. Nor are the events dramatized to give a viewpoint to interpret them, but rather presented as Kit’s decisions to reach a means to an end. We experience the killing spree just like Kit and Holly- not really sure why it’s happening, no idea where it’s going, but unable to steer the events from their inevitable path.

Besides the interesting directing, strong performances from Sheen and Spacek, and beautiful cinematography (Tak Fujimoto‘s first movie), the movie also has a great score, in particular Orff‘s Gassenhauer leitmotif. It’s a playful, innocent piece that is more apt to evoke images of children playing than murder:

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