Program Notes: Badlands (1973)

Badlands (1973) is about two teenagers on a cross-country murder spree.

It was inspired by the notorious real-life crimes of serial killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, who in 1959 killed 11 people in Nebraska.

And yet Badlands is terribly funny. Black funny, but funny nonetheless. As a comedy of middle-American blandness mutating into indifferent homicide, it is no less satirical than Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Of course, even after years of watching it, I’m not entirely sure that it was meant to be funny. There’s nothing in the canon of writer/director Terrence Malick to suggest that he possesses a sense of humor. If any of you out there can find hilarity in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World or Tree of Life, I’d like to hear from you.

Film Screening:
Badlands (1973)
Saturday, Aug. 11 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

But Badlands, his marvelous first movie, makes me laugh.

Of course, it also makes me shudder and shake my head in disbelief and swoon from its sheer poetic beauty. This movie has a very full plate.

Let’s start with the terrific performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.

Sheen’s Kit Carruthers is a twenty-something garbage man who really wants to be James Dean. He’s perfected the ducktail hairdo, the slouched insouciance, the tight white T-shirt.

Kit is a fast-talking con artist. (In his first line of dialogue he tries to get a co-worker to eat a dead dog he discovers on the garbage route.) He’s really not committed to anything in particular. It’s all about the pose.

To almost any question his answer is: “It takes all kinds.”

What he needs is a girl to adore him.

He finds her in 15-year-old Holly (Spacek), a freckle-faced baton twirler whose world view was formed by movie magazines. She has the personality of a celery stalk, but her white short shorts are extremely tight.

Kit shoots Holly’s widowed father (Warren Oates) and they take out for parts unknown.

Badlands is narrated by Holly, who speaks in a deadpan voice and uses phrases picked up from romance novels.

"Little did I realize," she tells us, "that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana."

Holly is a bit slow. It takes at least five murders before she proclaims, “Suddenly I was thrown into a state of shock. Kit was the most trigger happy person I’d ever met.”

Well, duh. D’you think?

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The film is quite beautiful, making the most of the flat Western landscapes and naturally-lit interiors.

And Malick makes tremendously interesting musical choices, creating a fairy-tale ambiance with music from composer Carl Orff (the lilting “Musica Poetica”) and Eric Satie. He choreographs a scene of the two young killers dancing in the forest to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange.”

There’s no meaning to be found Badlands’ mayhem, and that’s the point. Kit isn’t particularly vindictive or sadistic. He’s such a psychopath that morality doesn’t even figure into the equation.

He can shoot you in the stomach and then politely hold the front door open so that you can go die in your bed.

Perhaps Bruce Springsteen said it best in his Starkweather-inspired song “Nebraska”:

They declared me unfit to live
Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

Other films in the series “Road Trip”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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