Badlands (1973)

Badlands (1973) Capturing the Psyche of Criminals Terrence Malick Style

By: Domonique Salberg

Critics often consider Badlands (1973) as one of the best and most influential films of all time. Whether you agree or disagree, Terrence Malick‘s debut film does capture, poetically, and with the help of measured performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, a genuine and influential take on killers. Through compelling framing and so their behavior, Malick, informs us of their state of mind. As detached, self-absorbed, and cruel individuals, Kit and Holly familiarize us with who they are most in a few key scenes.    

As such, the further we get into the film, the more we discover that Kit and Holly present a disconnected and strange way of reacting and behaving in life. When they build a “house” in the woods to inhabit, their behavior is mimicking and unnatural. In the medium shot of Kit and Holly dancing, their body language is conveying something completely different from their facial expressions—no joy, excitement, or happiness just an awareness of how their feet and arms should move and sway. Specifically, the low angle shot of their feet seems to be choreographed instead of them dancing playfully as a couple; their focus is on how they should move next. They are, too, not looking at each other; especially Holly, she is gazing off as though she is deep in thought, trying to get the dance right.

Additionally, the next shot, rather telling of their detachment from the world, is when Kit shoots Cato. Malick chooses to film the gunning down of Cato in a long shot. The effect of this distance, with no reaction shot from Kit, emphasizes the carelessness and ease of his decision to kill Cato. After, Kit and Holly head back to the house where we see a medium shot of them in the next room—opposite of Cato dying—having a causal conversation about items in a magazine. Kit even mentions how Cato has a stolen cage in the room, completely unaware and callous about the severity of what has happened. 

Finally, the scene where Kit and Holly first meet suggests great attention to Kit’s performing as the tough guy when the camera shows a shot-reverse-shot of their conversation. Kit has his hands in his pocket, and the bad boy smirk, taunting Holly to take a walk with him. His body is very open and loose, trying very hard to behave with confidence and assurance. Holly, on the other hand, is performing as well, but in a less obvious manner since she should be wary of a strange man, yet we can still see her confusion and effort to present herself as mature and knowing. We can conclude from their first meeting, and the events to proceed is that these were unstable individuals before the killings. So with the brilliant choices make by Terrance Malick, what came to pass—violence and destruction—felt true to the characters delivering a much more disarming and mesmerizing story.  

What did you think about the directional style of Malick’s Badlands? Do you agree its one of the best and most influential films of all time?

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