(01/09/08) – As I went into the screening of Badlands, which was re-released in the UK last Friday (29 August), I asked myself why this movie is relevant now. And then I looked at the newspaper headlines and saw another couple of stabbings and a shooting across the country, all carried out by young men.

Badlands is about two young lovers, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), who go on the run after Kit kills Holly’s father. Murder is the dark heart of this story. Famously, there is no direct explanation for Kit’s actions – the story is narrated by Holly, apparently years later. There are only three scenes – at the beginning on the garbage truck, with her father (Warren Oates) while he paints the sign, and in the Record-Your-Voice booth – where Holly isn’t present somewhere, watching. And in those scenes Kit only says one thing we couldn’t otherwise know; at the age of 25, 15-year-old Holly is his first girlfriend. But Kit’s background and life before he meets Holly as she practices her baton in her front yard are never mentioned. We don’t know anything about his family, his home, or how he got the job as a garbageman. We learn more about Holly; her mother is dead and her father doesn’t know how to cope with her. She has no friends at school ‘on account of having no personality and not being pretty’. When he learns about Holly sneaking around with Kit, her father shoots her dog.

So of course Kit and Holly fall in love; no one else has ever paid any attention to them. And as night follows day, Kit and Holly get upset when her father threatens to break them up. And of course the lack of Kit’s past echoes the impossibility of him having a future.

This is a film about emptiness, with the emptiness inside Kit and Holly echoed in the empty vistas of the American midwest, the neverending plains rolling out underneath a huge sky gorgeously shot by Brian Probyn, Tak Fujimoto and Stevan Larner. In comparison, the cramped houses of Holly’s father’s and Kit’s friend Cato (Ramon Bieri) seem mean and cheap, and the house of the rich man (John Carter) a gorgeous, grotesque folly. Although it’s widely available on DVD, seeing it on the big screen is more appropriate – there’s more space to fill.

Malick structured the film to follow the murder spree of Charles Starkweather, who killed eleven people in 1951, including the family of his teenage girlfriend, Caril Fugate. Fugate is still alive – Starkweather was put to death shortly after his capture – and has always denied participating in any of the murders. But knowledge of this might take away from the scope and sweep of the film; on its own merits, Badlands stands alone. Since he made the film, Malick has become one of the most mysterious and celebrated directors in Hollywood, notorious for his reclusive working methods and the thirty-year gap between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998). If you’ve seen either of those, or 2005’s The New World, some of Malick’s themes – mainly, the indifference of the natural world to what people get up to – are fully present in Badlands. But also fire, murder, and women trying to find their place in an unfriendly world, as narrated by someone detached from the events swirling around them.

While never directly stated, Kit’s motivation for murder is very clear. He is angry that has played by the rules and can’t get a job better than a garbageman. He looks like James Dean and still can’t get a date. When Holly falls for him it’s obvious to them both their relationship will never last. He’s believes it’s important to be conventional and play by the rules, with good manners, and he can’t understand why this isn’t rewarded. It would have been very easy for Holly’s dad to split them up. And once you’ve killed someone once, the other times don’t make much of a difference.

The puzzle is why Holly feels ‘my destiny lay with Kit’, why she helps him burn down her house with her father’s body inside, and goes with him to build a treehouse in the woods furnished with bits and pieces from her home. Kit’s alienation does not seem so surprising; even though Holly never kills anyone, her anger and alienation are just as real, if much quieter. Her grief for her dead mother is only indirectly expressed, although clever visual metaphors throughout the film show she is frozen. Since she thinks no one other than Kit cares for her, it’s natural she’d want to stand by him, even though the sex is disappointing, even as he goes out of control. As her outlook shifts, she becomes alienated even from Kit, but still keeps her thoughts to herself.

Sheen and Spacek made their names with Badlands, playing much younger than their real ages, but the blankness they project and the lack of hysterical emoting anywhere in the film makes it very hard to relate to or empathise with them. The film is frequently compared to Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), but that was about a group of people who decided to rebel noisily against the quiet misery of the Depression. The murders the Barrow Gang committed were trophies to their own selfishness, whereas Kit and Holly seem too immature to predict the consequences of their actions. The horror they create and the fear they cause are the indirect results of their selfishness, and the hideout they build in the woods is an echo of the life they left behind in town. Bonnie and Clyde had the imagination to try to create a world of their own; the best Kit and Holly can do is a metaphorical ‘KEEP OUT’ sign.

So it is worth seeing Badlands on the big screen? By making Kit such a cipher, Malick reflects a blank screen for us to project our own motivations for his choices. As young people here this year have been stabbed to death for refusing a fight, or shot in the crossfire of someone else’s private war, we all know how dreams of young men can curdle into inarticulate violence, and the passive hopelessness of young women can turn against themselves. This story of a time long gone still, sadly, remains relevant now.

Badlands is currently playing in the UK. Please see links on the left for more details.