Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen go on a killing spree in “Badlands”
We’ve seen a samurai drama, a serial killer thriller and a cute, cuddly documentary about “Sesame Street.”
After a brief hiatus, “What to Watch” returns this week with the 1973 drama “Badlands.”
“Kit was the most trigger happy person I’d ever met. He claimed that as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses. You had to take the consequences, though, and not whine about it later.”
Those are the words of Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), the freckle-faced South Dakota schoolgirl at the heart of Terence Malick’s film.
While twirling her baton one summer morning, Holly catches the eye of Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a hot-tempered garbage collector 10 years her senior who looks “just like James Dean.”
Romance soon blooms between the 15-year-old and her older beau. But their relationship is opposed by her strict sign-painter dad, who expresses his objection by shooting her dog and signing her up for clarinet lessons.
Kit, however, is determined to be with Holly at any cost.
After killing her father and burning her house to the ground, he and Holly embark on a cross-country crime spree — careening across the plains in a stolen Cadillac.
A dreamy, deliberately paced crime drama that recalls elements of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Pierrot le Fou,” writer-director Terrence Malick’s first feature film sets the stage for his later, more experimental epics.
In Holly’s wistful voice-over, we hear the philosophical musings of the soldiers in “The Thin Red Line,” or the mid-century suburbanites in “The Tree of Life.” The same painterly care which which cinematographer Tak Fujimoto captures the subtle, sepia-toned beauty of the badlands can be seen in Nestor Almendros’s golden wheat fields and endless horizons in “Days of Heaven.”
“Badlands” draws its inspiration from the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather, who murdered eleven people in Nebraska during a two-month road trip with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, in the late 1950s.
Their onscreen counterparts also leave a line of bodies in their wake. But while Kit is definitely deranged – Sheen underplays his psychotic side perfectly — there’s also a wounded innocence, a childishness, about the boy.
How many cold-blooded killers would bother to build a “Swiss Family Robinson”-style tree house, or playfully steal a man’s Panama hat?
Spacek’s Holly, as stubborn and self-absorbed as any teenage girl, is a little harder to read. Is she a willing accomplice? A jaded observer? A victim?
Malick’s lush, lyrical film doesn’t cast judgment on the characters, perhaps wisely. We’re left instead with the hazy portrait of two aimless kids who are in way over their heads.
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