Badlands

Badlands

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

There are some murders so shocking, so hard to understand, that the memory of them can haunt a community for decades. There are some films which come so close to capturing the spirit of an event like that, touching upon those impossible questions, that they can haunt the viewer for the rest of their lives.

Badlands is narrated from the point of view of Holly Sargis (based on Caril-Ann Fugate), who is 15 when it all begins, a well brought up kid who takes music lessons and reads magazines and falls head over heels for rebellious 25-year-old Kit Carruthers (based on Charles Starkweather) when he comes striding into her little world. He's just distant enough to be fascinating and all seems like a wonderful romantic adventure, until her widower father disapproves, and shoots her dog as punishment, and Kit shoots him.

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It is the first of many murders. Holly is a girl who goes along for the ride, scarcely aware of what's happening to her, concerned only with life in the now. She's fixated in her passion like many a teenager and the charismatic Kit tries, in his own way, to take care of her, building a tree house for them to live in. They're both elemental characters who seem to have no real moral awareness of the world but are no less interesting for this absence.

Martin Sheen is suitably dazzling, egotistical yet curiously sympathetic, emblematic of a backlash against a civilised way of life which has become too far removed from natural human instincts, rebelling against poverty and external control in a way which cannot help but elicit respect, regardless of the viewer's horror at his behaviour. But it's Sissy Spacek in the quiet, understated role of Holly who is a revelation. It is a performance which launched a remarkable career - and although she was only 14 at the time, it is one of her best.

In accordance with the nature of its characters, Badlands is a distanced, non-judgmental film with a poetic beauty about it. The cinematography, making the most of stark landscapes and wide open spaces, is often breathtaking. The simple music subtly builds conflicting melodies, reflecting the conflict in Holly's heart and foreshadowing an inevitably ugly ending. This is the classic doomed couple, an example of love utterly failing to solve anything, but their romance is compelling nonetheless. Badlands is a fascinating film and should not be missed.

Reviewed on: 28 Aug 2008
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Badlands packshot
A young couple fall in love and do terrible things in a story based on the Starkweather Fugate killings of 1959.
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Director: Terrence Malick

Writer: Terrence Malick

Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn

Year: 1973

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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