laconic: a. Short, pithy, curt, epigrammatic, terse.
taciturn: a. Habitually silent; not apt to talk.
sociopathic: a. From the noun: a psychopathic personality whose behavior is aggressively antisocial.
A few moments after it opens, Badlands locates its hero, Kit—Martin Sheen, twenty-six years before he became our Wednesday night president—standing over a dead dog and not reacting the way we would hope. His opening lines have to be some of the most idiosyncratic any hero’s ever uttered in a Hollywood movie. He says to a fellow garbageman, “Give you a dollar to eat this collie.” He sounds serious. And it’s a measure of the kind of world we’re in that the garbageman answers that it would take more than a dollar. And that that isn’t a collie, anyway.
Until his recent uptick, Terrence Malick hadn’t made many movies—only four in the first thirty-some years of his career. Mostly because Badlands—which he wrote, produced, and directed in 1973—was his first, he always remained a cult figure.
The story is based on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree in the midwest in the late ’50s. Most of the movie’s details are taken from that dismal saga of two sociopathic dimwits—Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate—who killed eleven people for no good reason before being caught. And Badlands wants to suggest that there was something peculiarly American about their dimwittedness and the particularly lethal forms it took. Badlands was the first movie to really taxonomize a particularly American species, a species which right about now could use some taxonomizing: the sentimental sociopath.
For decades there’d been movies about young people in love and on the run, living off their guns, but they’d all had one thing in common: the couple had always been forced into violence by accident or circumstance. You know the drill: they just wanted to rob a store or bank, sometimes for kicks, sometimes to eat, but some unpleasant establishment type tried to take them out, and next thing they knew, they’d killed somebody. They’d never meant to hurt anybody. Now they had to keep killing. In other words, they were killers you could root for.
Kit and Holly—a teenage Sissy Spacek in a role that mobilized all of her girl-next-door spaciness in the most unsettling ways—are not. They’re not forced to kill and they’re not fazed by killing. Mostly they feel bad for themselves. As far as they’re concerned, they’re the most admirable people they know. And that’s because they never think about anybody else.
Badlands was—and still is—amazing for its insight into the ways in which a kind of hopelessly shallow romanticism, leached down from pop culture, intersects sinisterly with—and in fact, may even help enable—sociopathic behavior. “He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms,” Holly tells us in her voice-over, and we transition from that to her killing a pet catfish for no apparent reason by pitching it outside. (“The whole time the only thing I did wrong was throwing out my fish,” she adds, and we watch it gasping and struggling in a melon patch.) “I didn’t mind telling Kit about stuff like this, ’cause strange things happened in his life, too,” she confides, and we see Kit standing (!), experimentally, off and on a sick cow lying on its side. “And as he lay in bed, in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise, like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes, he’d see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes, and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead,” she adds, but what we’re looking at is Kit on his bed giving off the blankest of blank stares—something in the lobotomized range. That gives way to their first sexual encounter, a disappointment to them both. And yet, Kit knows that such encounters are supposed to be memorialized. And how would he like to memorialize it? “We should crunch our hands with this stone,” he tells her. “That way we’d never forget what happened today.” To which Holly replies, maybe a little too matter-of-factly, “But it would hurt.” “That’s the point, stupid,” he tells her. And she takes issue not with his suggestion, but with having been called stupid. So he decides to memorialize the moment by keeping the rock with which he would’ve crushed her hand. Except that it’s too big. So he keeps a different one.
“What’s gonna happen to Jack and me?” one of their victims, a girl exactly Holly’s age, asks her, as she’s heading off toward her doom. The boys walk ahead: just two couples, kickin’ stones and makin’ small talk. Holly answers that she’ll have to ask Kit, and asks if the girl loves her boy. Then she remarks, “I gotta stick by Kit. He feels trapped.” “I can imagine,” the girl answers, and we get a sense of just how understated this movie’s black humor can be. But Holly doesn’t register the irony. In fact, her response makes clear just how far from normal human empathy she resides: “Well, I’ve felt that way. Haven’t you?”
Building a mainstream Hollywood movie around that kind of stunted, bonsai version of affect was nervy and memorable enough to have spawned a whole genealogy of imitators. It’s a subgenre we all might have been better off without, but, either way, all of those blank-eyed and sociopathic teens we’ve watched take in horrors without batting an eye, from River’s Edge to Natural Born Killers to Kids, are variations on Kit and Holly.
But there were other aspects of our pop culture with which Badlands had issues. In 1973 the Hollywood Western was already seventy years old, having begun in the Roosevelt administration with The Great Train Robbery in 1903. Some part of its longevity has had to do with its usefulness in interrogating a particular set of incoherencies and paradoxes residing within our national self-image. Real Americans, Americans believe, are all about cooperation and teamwork; real Americans are rugged individualists. Real Americans are law-abiding, and real Americans occasionally feel the need to take the law into their own hands. Real Americans fight to make communities safe for habitation, and then real Americans seem to get pretty antsy at the notion of settling down in one of those communities.
All of that sounds mighty familiar to marginal characters like Kit. They’re the same incoherencies that he’s been flummoxed by in his own way.
The Western hero is fundamentally antisocial. That’s why we love him. He makes his own rules. That’s why we love him. But those are also, we notice, characteristics of villains and sociopaths. The Western hero doesn’t think; he just acts. That’s why we love him. Kit tells Holly when he first meets her and he’s trying to explain why he’s special, “I’ve got some stuff to say. Guess I’m lucky that way.” But he doesn’t really mean that he has stuff to say. He gets a chance to speak, later, to provide his version of things on one of those do-it-yourself records, and he finds that he can’t even fill up a minute’s worth of time. If he intends to get noticed, he realizes, he needs to have stuff to do.
At one point well into their killing spree, Holly tells us in voice-over that they lived in utter loneliness, but that Kit informed her that solitude was a better expression for what she wanted to say. The distinction’s not a minor one, for Kit: solitude, he registers, is less needy than loneliness; solitude grants isolation its dignity by leaving open the possibility that it was a choice.
The Western hero is someone who owns almost nothing but his one set of clothes and his gun; someone for whom the terms poverty, or rootlessness, don’t seem to apply as pejoratives. He is not shiftless. He is not a failure. He’s outside social hierarchies. An appealing prospect if, like Kit, your alternative seems to be garbageman.
“Well, I know what my daddy’s gonna say,” Holly tells him soon after they meet when he asks if he can see her again. “What?” he asks. “That I shouldn’t be seen with anybody that collects garbage,” she tells him.
Fifty years ago in an essay called “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” a critic named Robert Warshow put his finger dead on the center of what’s most bizarre, and for Americans, mesmerizing, about the figure of the Western hero.
As he saw it, what the Western hero fought for, in the final analysis, was the purity of his own image: his honor. When the gangster was killed, Warshow wrote, his whole life was shown to have been a mistake, but the image the Western hero sought to maintain could be presented as clearly in defeat as in victory; he fought mostly to assert what he was, and he had to live in a world that permitted that statement. What was corner-turning about Warshow’s essay was the way it explained what was persistently elegiac about the form, since in his formulation the hero was fighting not to extend his dominion but to assert his personal value, and his tragedy lay in the fact that even that circumscribed demand could not be fully realized. Warshow reminded us, in other words, about just how monomaniacally the genre was concerned with style. It wasn’t violence at all that was the point, but a certain image, a style, which expressed itself most clearly in violence.
Part of the resilient appeal of John Wayne in Stagecoach, Alan Ladd in Shane, or Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine is the appeal of the paradox of the affable man with the gun. The affable man with the gun: that’s a prototype to which Kit is trying to aspire.
But the aspect of the Western hero that may hold the most appeal for Kit, and for America, may be his essential inarticulateness. The Western hero doesn’t trust words. What’s he say when asked why he does what he does? That a man has to do what a man has to do. Well, thanks. John Wayne’s character in Stagecoach, the Ringo Kid, is an outlaw. How’d that happen, anyway, to such an apparently decent guy? Well, here’s his explanation for it: “Well, I used to be a good cowhand,” he explains to Dallas, the fallen woman who thinks he’s swell, “but . . . things happen.” “Yeah,” Dallas agrees, by all appearances thinking about her own apparently inexplicable situation. “That’s it. Things happen.”
For how many years now in our national consciousness has John Wayne been pretty much the gold standard when it comes to images of easygoing and self-assured masculinity? And what was he selling, exactly?
Partly, at least, the way real men turn can’t explain into won’t explain. The way real men disdain explanations. Explanations are for schoolteachers, shopkeepers, the emasculated. Consider Donald Rumsfeld’s face, in any of his press conferences, when he was asked to pursue the logic of one of his statements.
Kit’s justification for quitting his job is “Just seemed like the right move.” “How’s he doing?” Holly asks him after he has shot his best—and maybe only—friend, and he answers, “Got him in the stomach.”
America’s always been full of guys who feel like they’ve been shown their whole lives that they’re outsiders; who know they’re anachronisms; who know that the only real choice they probably have before them is how to get swept aside. Kit goes from garbageman to cowhand, and doesn’t catch on at that, and when he’s asked at the unemployment agency what kind of work he thinks he’s qualified for, he has to say, “Can’t think of anything at the moment.” His first act of rugged individualism in the movie is to wander off his job with the garbage truck. Which he explains immediately to Holly: “Quit my job. Well, I’m going to work as a cowboy, now.”
If that’s what he wants, in the American Western, even more than he needs a horse, and certainly more than he needs a cow, he needs a gun.
His and Holly’s killing spree opens with his visit to Holly’s house, and his confrontation with Holly’s father, played by the dimly sour and crankily suspicious Warren Oates, back in action just four years after his own memorable performance as a sociopath—the pea-brained Lyle Gorch—in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Holly and her father return to their house to find Kit wandering through the upstairs. He’s started to pack her things.
Holly’s father asks a reasonable question: “What’re you doing?” Kit’s answer is, “Got a gun here, sir. It’s always a good idea to have one around.”
He’s trying out roles, whether it’s the hero who saves the princess in the tower, or the Western hero. “Suppose I shot you?” he asks Holly’s father. “How’d that be? Huh?” And we understand, as an increasingly frightened Holly’s father understands, that Kit really doesn’t know. “Want to hear what it sounds like?” he asks, and the weird, hollowed-out metallic ring of the gunshot in the enclosed space of the staircase jolts us as much as them.
Holly’s father attempts a sort of dignified run for it, to get help. Kit shoots him. He dies there in the living room, Holly’s hands on his cheeks.
Which brings us to this essay’s opening definitions. The first two—laconic and taciturn—are adjectives wearyingly applied to Western heroes. The third, sociopathic, is the word often chosen to describe serial murderers. When you make a movie about a misfit wanderer who shoots people when he feels emotionally stymied—like, say, Billy the Kid—that’s precisely the line you’re straddling. As far as Kit can tell, Western heroes don’t talk much, can’t really express themselves, kill people periodically, and can’t always fully articulate why. Now there’s a career path in which he can imagine himself.
In the sequence following the shooting of Holly’s father we trail Kit across that spectrum of adjectives, all the way to the dysfunctional. First he’s taciturn, and doesn’t say much at all. He walks back and forth, puts an unlit cigarette in his mouth, exercises his shoulders. He and Holly find themselves in the kitchen. “How bad off is he?” Holly asks him. “I can look and see,” Kit answers. Going out for a walk, he offers her something laconic in the face of possibly dire consequences: “You want to call the police,” he tells her, “that’s fine. Just won’t be so hot for me.” And then, having dragged her father’s body into the cellar, he returns, having moved beyond what would go under the heading of masculine understatement: “I found a toaster,” he tells her, setting it on the counter.
After the killing, neither he nor Holly know quite what to do with themselves. Which is not the same as saying they’re anguished, or even particularly uncomfortable about what they’ve done. There’s then a fade to black, and a cut to the outside of the house, now in twilight, that’s quietly stunning, as we’re forced to understand that that’s it, in terms of notable reactions. Time passed. The shooting took place mid-afternoon. Apparently nothing of significance happened—in terms of thoughts, speech, or actions—for the next three or four hours.
As the rest of the world has discovered to its distress since the end of the Cold War, it’s a cherished American notion that American idiosyncrasy needs to be indulged. It takes all kinds to make a world. Especially an American world. As Holly’s father says to Kit when Kit comes to talk to him the first time, and when Kit refuses to accept that he can’t see Holly, “You’re something.” To which Kit replies, “Takes all kinds, sir.”
At the very end, having given himself up, Kit asks the state policeman guarding him in the airplane that’s transporting him to death row where he might be able to get a hat like the state policeman has. The state policeman echoes the sentiment Kit has been trying to create wherever he’s gone, by whatever means necessary: “You’re quite an individual, Kit.” And Kit says back, “Think they’ll take that into consideration?” It’s not just a wiseassed question. Because Kit has already intuited that when it comes to our Western heroes, we do. We have.
Comparing Badlands to another young-killers-on-a-spree movie made just six years earlier—Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, considered fearlessly controversial on its release—makes clear just how much before Badlands the genre relied on making its protagonists’ internal lives open to the viewer, and intensely sympathetic besides. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde simply will not stop flirting, with each other or with us. They’re adorable; what’s stressed throughout the movie are the sexual thrills and high-spirited hijinks and excitement that lie ahead, all embodied nicely in the uptempo banjo riffs that score their various getaway scenes.
Badlands certainly glamorizes the real Starkweather and Fugate to some extent—the genuine articles were, after all, so demoralizingly depressing—but mostly it’s interested in deflating those sorts of pleasures described above, or satirizing them. In scene after scene, Kit and Holly seem to prefer each other’s company to lying alone in a ditch, or being dead, but it looks like the decision could have gone either way. There are no high spirits. There is instead a glum sense of things having gone wrong, and a listless sense of not knowing how—or not caring enough—to fix them.
“At this moment I didn’t feel shame or fear,” Holly tells us in voice-over, right after their eighth murder, while we watch them drive, each gazing out their side of the car, “but just kinda blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” Holly’s simile, like so much of her voice-over, is equal parts appalling and flatly comic for what it refuses to register. The image at that moment is equally desultory: a two shot of their inexpressive faces, just driving and staring. Equally comic, in an equally dismal way, is the scene preceding that one, in which we see Kit off behind a boxcar gesticulating to himself his frustration with his own actions after having killed the young couple so like them. We want, in characters like that, Bonnie and Clyde’s rebellious sense of their own agency—why can’t we do what we wish? Why can’t we break the rules?—so we can live vicariously through them. But Kit and Holly seem to treat what they do as bad breaks, as though they have no more agency in their actions than they would in the weather.
Halfway through we’re given, in sepia tones intended to evoke the feel of retrieved documentary footage, a montage of the forces of order gearing up to stop them: a standard part of this kind of movie. Except those forces of order are here mercilessly satirized. We get images of tiny schoolchildren escorted by heavily armed guards; a special detective brought in, apparently in order to point on camera toward the burned-out hulk of Holly’s old sofa; American Gothic types posing with their rifles in their new roles as sheriffs of Tombstone; truckloads of trigger-happy Oklahomans cruising around and just itching to let fly.
In fact, one of the movie’s more disturbing aspects is how little Kit and Holly stand out in their world. Almost no one in the movie seems to express any more emotion than they do, or seems surprised at what they’re doing. Kit’s best friend seems unsurprised at being shot by Kit, and willing to chat about his pet spider afterward, while he bleeds to death. The young couple who become the next victims are taken aback, but not much more, at being held at gunpoint. When Kit says to the boy “You expect me to believe that?” about staying put in a storm cellar while Kit and Holly try to get away—a question that has life or death significance for the boy—the boy answers, “Yeah.” No one seems to have much of an understanding of their own emotions. During a picnic Kit’s best friend laughs uproariously at a joke that doesn’t seem to be funny, and then, when Kit asks him, “Isn’t that funny?” he sobers up, and says, as though he’s not qualified to answer: “I guess.” And it seems as though Kit’s not the only one who has strange ideas about when the use of violence is appropriate. When her father discovered their relationship, Holly informs us in voice-over, “As punishment for deceiving him, he went and shot my dog.” And we watch Oates drawing down on a hapless mutt in the weeds, the poor mutt’s ear flapping over in trepidation.
And then there’s the inspired touch of having the deputy who actually apprehends Kit—the younger of two policemen—turning out to be a mirror image. He not only resembles Kit (“Hell, he ain’t no bigger than I am,” he tells his partner with satisfaction) but, trailing behind as they take him away, the deputy takes aim and fires off into the landscape, absorbed in his own private Weltschmerz. A hero is someone who looks like a hero.
The movie’s entire visual style reinforces that sense that affect is something happening very far away. (One of the perverse aspects of this essay so far has been how little it’s dwelt on the visual, since probably more than any director alive, Malick’s thrown in his lot with the visual.) Throughout the movie the cinematography matches the characters’ inability to keep their focus on the human. We’re given lots of Big Sky long shots; we’re given lots of oddly inconsequential backwater bits of nature: a beetle on a stem; muddy water rilling past a sandbar. The effect is the creation of a perceiving sensibility that seems interested in everything and affected by nothing.
But what made Badlands truly startling in 1973 was the amount of dissonance it was interested in generating between what we were seeing and what we were hearing. (That dissonance has become more and more overbearing in Malick’s later movies, many of which—like Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line—are even more spectacularly beautiful in terms of their cinematography, and feature voice-overs that begin weirdly and then go downhill, ending up vacillating between the tendentious, the pretentious, and the gnomic. In fact, the standard joke in Hollywood about Malick has been that if you’re deaf, you think he’s the world’s greatest filmmaker, and if you’re blind, you think he’s the worst.) But in Badlands, that disconnect between image and sound is always doing intelligent work. Early on in their courtship, such as it is, we cut from a date in town—Kit asking “Can I come around and see you tomorrow?” and Holly answering “Okay”—to a cow’s head, its eye goggling out at us. And as her voice-over picks up the narration of their progressing relationship—“Little by little we fell in love,” etc.—we see Kit’s job in the feed lot: the violence and invasiveness of the work of trapping cattle and forcing their supplements on them. We stay with those images while Holly continues her narrative: “He said that I was grand, though,” she tells us, while we see him kicking a cow’s head during feeding. “He said he’d never met a 15-year-old girl who behaved more like a grown-up and wasn’t all giggly,” she continues, while the camera lingers over a sick cow that’s moaning and lying on its side. These are juxtapositions hard to categorize as simple irony. This is a use of sound, and editing, to reinforce what the cinematography is up to: the establishment of an agenda that doesn’t seem to prioritize human beings.
The dissonance that people remember the most vividly from the movie, though, involves Carl Orff’s music, the eloquent use of which has been ripped off pretty much continuously since, most egregiously in Tony Scott’s True Romance, yet another kids-on-the-run saga. There’s a reason it’s been poached so many times. The main piece, entitled “Musica Poetica,” has a headlong simplicity to its xylophone runs that beautifully evokes a pastoral innocence and childlike play. All of which is incongruous, to say the least, with the general mayhem.
And speaking of innocence: Badlands as it proceeds becomes more and more interested in another of our preoccupations, in terms of our self-image as Americans: our insistence upon our essential innocence. Part of the reason we’ve been willing to accept being stereotyped as not very sophisticated is because of the way unsophisticated nestles right up against innocence. Think about our conception of ourselves, in terms of our foreign policy: we may screw up, we may blunder about, but we always mean well. Any harm done to others is either unforeseen or couldn’t have been avoided. Our hearts are in the right place, even if we act as though they aren’t. That’s quite a claim, when you think about it: our hearts are in the right place, even if we act as though they aren’t.
And one of the smartest and subtlest aspects of Badlands is just how slyly Holly’s voice-over throughout the movie plays to that desire we have for ourselves.
As she narrates her travels across the upper midwest with Kit, her voice-over begins to become quietly and unobtrusively exculpatory. We slowly realize that there’s another reason her voice-over is seeming dissonant from what we’re seeing: she’s constructing a story that will serve to distance her from her beloved Kit, for purposes of punishment.
Which is exactly what happens. She begins the movie by asserting her own childlike innocence—there I was, just a girl playing with my dog—and her family’s history of emotional deprivation: How’d I end up in this spot? Well, I came from a sad family background. And then, a surprising number of times, she returns to the assertion that she did relatively little (“The whole time the only thing I did wrong was throwing out my fish.”) She stages little moments of epiphany—of dawning understanding—well into their trip. (After Kit has killed his seventh, eighth, and ninth victims, she announces, with a kind of stagy rectitude, in voice-over, “Suddenly I was thrown into a state of shock. Kit was the most trigger-happy person I’d ever met.” She turns out to be directly unreliable multiple times, and that unreliability always has to do with issues that might exonerate her or their behavior. She tells us Kit had heard the bounty hunters that he ambushed whispering about the reward money, and that otherwise he never would have shot them, assuming them to be lawmen. But we were with Kit during that scene and heard no such thing. Later, for a day or two, they appropriate a rich man’s house to hide out in relative comfort, and Holly leaves Kit there, to take a walk. She tells us, while we see her walking farther and farther from the house, “The day was quiet and serene, but I didn’t notice, for I was deep in thought, and not even thinking about how to slip off.” Thereby raising and answering—seemingly innocently—the question that the law would be most likely to ask: Why didn’t you run away when you had the chance?
She’s also careful to play up the innocents-who’ve-lit-out-for-the-territory angle. While they’re out in the wilderness, we’re struck by the continual choice of visual subjects—close-ups of leaves or bugs, etc.—that seem to constitute a five-year-old’s view of nature. We watch all sorts of Swiss Family Robinson–type projects underway and hear from her about all sorts of childish plans: building tunnels, adopting passwords. We see them do shy little parallel dances to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange.” We finally tilt down across a shot of them asleep in their tree house, the camera movement ending once we’ve been reminded that these innocent children still have big guns. And then we’re given one more image of their childhood play turning lethal, as we see Kit testing a basketball-sized swinging booby trap studded with sharpened stakes. Love Is Strange, all right.
Holly’s self-presentation works, it turns out. At the end of the movie we’re told that unlike Kit, who got the death penalty, she got off “with probation and a lot of nasty looks.” And there’s the persistent hint that that’s not just the way things worked out; that some of it might have been engineered. She also mentions that, oh, by the way, she ended up marrying the son of the lawyer who defended her.
Her self-consciousness as author of her own story is made explicit when she pokes through her dad’s stereopticon images while out in the wilderness. “It hit me that I was just this little girl,” she tells us, and goes on to add that “it sent a chill down my spine, and I thought: Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody?”
She’s not only musing about the way she can revise her life; she’s musing about the way she will revise it. “What’s the man I’ll marry going to look like?” she goes on to speculate. Because she’s already got a new life in mind. One that’s going to restore a different Holly altogether.
It makes perfect sense that, in an interview after the movie’s release, Malick listed as his literary inspirations for her voice-over the Nancy Drew mysteries, Huckleberry Finn, and The Swiss Family Robinson.
It’s as if at such moments we’re in the presence of a satiric vision that’s oddly sympathetic with the myths it’s exploding. Part of the reason for that comes from the triangulation formed between the voice-over and the images and us. We have to put the two together. We’re conscious of the work of doing so. The third point of the triangle becomes our evolving idea of the movie’s position. The visuals alone wouldn’t provide that position, and neither would the voice-over.
She helps exaggerate the notoriety they achieve, a kind of listless and amoral celebrityhood of the sort we all recognize but that in the early ’70s was just emerging in force. “The whole country was out looking for us, for who knew where Kit would strike next,” she announces, already at work on the legend. And Kit becomes that legend while we watch: hundreds come out to see him, once apprehended, at the airport, and police and bystanders alike seem willing to collect souvenirs he tosses. A father points him out to his little boy. Kit even is granted the satisfaction of hearing the deputy announce that he’s a dead ringer for James Dean.
But Holly’s story doesn’t end with Kit. It’s chronicling something else, as well. It turns out that she’s working in another American genre that goes back even further than the Western: the captivity narrative. I have come through the fire—I have come through my harrowing trials—and have emerged at the end, saved. Captivity narratives, to remind those not as conversant with American colonial literature as they’d like to be, were narratives written by colonists—usually women—spirited away from their homes by savages, women who survived, living among the savages, and then finally were returned to civilization, usually by a raid that killed the savages. Such characters usually had one crucial question to address, implicitly or explicitly: So just how did you survive all this time, exactly? The answer, more often than not, was: I survived because I endured suffering without complaint. I survived because I had an innocence they could not touch. I survived because I was—am—one of the Chosen.
What’s initially memorable about Badlands’ final sequence is Kit’s final question—“Think they’ll take that into consideration?”—and the unreassuring image that follows of the vast expanse of the sky with its setting sun, as viewed from above the clouds. But what’s striking about the sequence if you see it a second time is how absorbed it is with Holly’s reactions.
“You’re quite an individual, Kit,” the policeman says, and we get Holly’s reaction shot, in close-up, to that comment. And her face isn’t blank; in fact, it looks quietly accused. Kit then makes his comeback—“Think they’ll take that into consideration?” and, having said that, looks at her (she’s facing him in the plane) and we get her reaction shot to that. She looks back at him, with a slight, reassuring smile, and then averts her eyes and gazes out the window. And we can see in her expression—in Spacek’s performance—traces of both her sadness and guilt.
And then we see what she’s looking at: that cloud vista: one last instance in the movie of the sort of lyrical beauty rendered in gorgeous long shot that, like all those Big Sky Country shots that have come before, has an unadorned neutrality to it, partially because of its emptiness and non-human scale.
We expect a final comment, a final voice-over, while we take that in. But we don’t get one. Instead, we get silence. And then a slightly overly sweet music box lullaby, which winds down as the image fades to black.
Leaving us having been shifted, quietly, from a consideration of Kit to a consideration of Holly. And a consideration of how Holly, in ways we’d prefer not to really examine, has been standing in for us.
Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels, including The Book of Aron; five story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway—a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of The Story Prize—and editor of the anthology Writers at the Movies. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles. He teaches at Williams College.