#203) Badlands (1973)


#203) Badlands (1973)

OR “Thank You, a-Sissy and a-Marty”

Directed & Written by Terrence Malick

Class of 1993

The Plot: Loosely based on the 1958 Nebraska killing spree of Charles Starkweather & Caril Ann Fugate, “Badlands” tells the tale of Kit & Holly (Martin Sheen & Sissy Spacek) in 1959 South Dakota (See? Totally different). Kit is an aimless 25-year-old James Dean lookalike with a penchant for gun violence, and Holly is an impressionable 15-year-old with an overprotective father (Warren Oates). When Father finally confronts Kit about his unhealthy attraction to his daughter, Kit shoots him, fakes his and Holly’s suicide by burning the house down, and drives off with Holly for the badlands of Montana. There’s an unlikely mix of character study and mass shootings in their future.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Malick, calling this film “one of the most impressive of directorial debuts” and calls Sheen’s performance “forceful and properly weird”. As mom always says, if you’re going to be weird, at least be proper.

But Does It Really?: The degree of difficulty is high on this one, but Malick pulls off a film that is surprisingly understanding of these two incredibly fucked-up kids. In the hands of a lesser director, this film would have been louder and way more violent. But Malick gets you to understand these two, and Sheen and Spacek make them two people you want to spend time with. I have my doubts it could be made today, but “Badlands” is a fine representation of the new cinema of the ‘70s and a wonderful introduction to the works of Terrence Malick.

Everybody Gets One: How is this Sissy Spacek’s only NFR entry? Where the hell is “Carrie” or “JFK” or “Trading Mom”? [2019 UPDATE: “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; I was close.]

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the idea that you could make a movie that sympathizes with a loner white man who takes out his frustrations by shooting a bunch of people. Those days are over.

Title Track: Holly says the title once in the pre-opening credits scene. Malick’s restraint in his first feature is commendable.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Badlands”, but Malick’s movies (whenever he makes them) would become Oscar contenders soon enough. This film’s only awards attention was at the 1974 San Sebastian International Film Festival, and a BAFTA nomination for Sissy Spacek as Most Promising Newcomer. She lost to the very British Georgina Hale.

Other notes

  • 25-15 is one hell of an age-gap. There was a 5-year gap between Starkweather and Fugate, but Kit’s age was upped to 25 because Sheen could not convincingly play 20.
  • Sissy Spacek does teenage awkwardness so well.
  • Among the moments this film preserves is Martin Sheen’s jacket maneuver of putting it on over his head. This is due to Sheen’s limited lateral movement due to a birth defect. You can also spot the move in many episodes of “The West Wing”.
  • See those two kids sitting on the street corner that Kit watches? Those are Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. For the better part of two decades this was their only Registry appearance.
  • The confrontation between Sheen and Oates ain’t exactly “Meet the Parents”, is it? Also, how did no one in that neighborhood hear multiple gunshots?
  • What the hell is a Voice-O-Graph?
  • I’m enjoying the film’s abrupt transitions from steady cam to shaky cam. Kudos to whoever was the cinematographer on those days.
  • That is the most impressive treehouse I’ve ever seen. It’s “Swiss Family Robinson” meets “Home Alone”, with a little bit of “The Ewok Adventure” thrown in for fun.
  • Love Is Strange”. A little on the nose, don’t you think Malick?
  • That’s Terrence Malick himself as the architect who tries to visit the rich man. And who says he’s a recluse?
  • So..Sissy Spacek has never aged. We can all agree on that, right? Are freckles the secret to eternal youth?
  • I applaud people who drove pre-GPS. Relying on a map on the dashboard sounds like a nightmare. I don’t know how anyone did it.
  • Holly says that if they don’t come back for their buried stuff, someone 1000 years from now will find it. Be sure to include Barney Google.
  • Given how many gunshots and car chases there are, this is a surprisingly quiet film. You can definitely see the Arthur Penn influence.
  • The film’s stunt driver Gary Littlejohn also appears onscreen as the Sheriff towards the end. Because when it’s your first movie, you have to save money wherever you can.
  • “Badlands” didn’t do so well during its first release, primarily because Warner Bros. put it on a double feature with, and this is true, “Blazing Saddles”. Luckily both films survived this immense head-scratcher.


  • Terrence Malick followed this up with another NFR entry: 1978’s “Days of Heaven”. After that, 20 years of radio silence.
  • Everyone at some point has done a fictional version of the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree. See “Natural Born Killers” and “The Sadist” for such examples.
  • “True Romance” takes it up a notch by not only emulating the movie, but also emulating its score!
  • This Bruce Springsteen song;
  • Sissy Spacek met art director Jack Fisk on the set of this film. They married in 1974, and they’re still going!
  • The Zodiac Killer wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle to complain about an ad they ran for a screening of “Badlands”. He felt that the film’s tagline was too casual about the characters’ killing spree and that this kind of advertisement was “murder-glorification”. …wait, what?

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