"I saw her standin' on her front lawn just twirlin' her baton Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died"
-Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska"
Terrence Malick began work on his debut Badlands in his second year at the American Film Institute, crafting not only a script but a sales pitch complete with videos and slides for potential investors. It didn't matter, though; he got his money on the spot and ended up crafting possibly the best "road" movie ever made.
Loosely based on the infamous 1957 murder spree of Carl Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, Badlands opens with garbage man Kit (Martin Sheen) walking up to Holly (Sissy Spacek), surely enough, on her front porch twirling a baton. In her voice-over, Holly describes Kit as "the handsomest man I ever saw--he looked just like James Dean." Kit gets fired from his job, and comes to sweep Holly off her feet and take her out of this dead-end town. Soon, Kit leaves bodies wherever they go.
Malick uses the voice-over to create a dialectic between the actual events on-screen and how the character interpreted them. This style would become Malick's trademark, bringing Linda's detached perspective to the love triangle in Days of Heaven and prying into the minds of the soldiers in The Thin Red Line. Holly speaks like the child she is: she views their road trip as the ultimate romantic getaway. Even as Kit blows another hole in some poor sap for no reason, she narrates her journey as if reading out of a teen magazine. Though the real Caril Ann was supposedly just as violent as Starkweather, Malick turns Holly into an innocent child who follows her boyfriend simply because he likes her. "I wasn't popular at school on account of having no personality and not being pretty," and this flattery wins her over as if Kit were Romeo incarnate.
What makes the film so interesting is how little Malick cares about these characters' psyches; Kit never gives a reason for killing, nor does he seem to enjoy it, but he murders anyway. Martin Sheen, in his major debut and possibly his finest performance, plays Kit as a man driven by loneliness and isolation. We don't know--and we never will--why he kills, but we know something went wrong in his life to make him this way. Spacek keeps Holly from being one-dimensional by giving her just enough smarts to figure out that Kit is...a little off. At the end she muses what may have drove him to his ways, but as is often the case with Malick, the point is to ask the questions, not get the answers.
Holly's voice-over and Malick's structuring deliberately rob the film of emotional impact, as he would do with his subsequent films. When Holly starts to spend time with Kit, her father disapproves and, as punishment, shoots her dog. "I was greatly distressed," recalls Holly. Because Kit gets no pleasure from his killings, the murders seem so matter-of-fact that they're emotionally draining. Malick's films would play out like anti-climaxes if they didn't spend the whole time detaching you from the proceedings, and it makes his films so singular in an industry of tropes and cliché.
What brings these two characters together? Kit is 10 years older, and Holly clearly has enough intelligence to see Kit's madness, even if it takes her awhile. What drives them to such acts of horror? The stark feel of the film seems to suggest that they see each other as kindred spirits in alienation; both feel alone even together, and crime seems to be the only thing that adds meaning to their lives. In the final moments, Holly tells us that Kit got the death penalty and she got off with parole and eventually married her lawyer's son, telling us that she's speaking to us from well into the future. It tells us that she's just as empty in the future as she is in the present. Maybe Kit got off lucky.