The story of a rock & roll Romeo and Juliet circa 1959, Kit (Martin Sheen) is a self-obsessed 25-year-old garbage man from Fort Dupree, South Dakota, with delusions of grandeur and a desire to dress like James Dean.
Holly (Sissy Spacek) is a dim-witted and bored 15-year-old girl who joins Kit on his killing spree across the mid-West badlands (starting with her own father) for no other reason than it is the only opportunity for adventure that she is ever likely to have.
Kit and Holly are creatures who know nothing of responsibility. They commit their bloody deeds as if they were a game, absent of emotion or compassion.
The dead are no more real to Holly than the people she reads about in her Hollywood movie magazines.
Using the ironic voiceover technique that was eventually considered de rigueur for smart-arsed indie films, Spacek’s spoken diary about these two rebels without a cause gives Badlands a level of wit and compassion that most of its numerous imitators have severely lacked.
Badlands was based on the actual killing spree of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Carol Ann Fugate in the 1950s and is credited as the inspiration for films like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia (1993).
This film has a gentler perspective than those later films, but at the same time isn’t afraid of the brutality that a bland environment and frustrating circumstances can create in a pair of teenagers.
One of only three films directed by Terrence Malick – the others being Days Of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) – Badlands is often touted as the most impressive debut since Citizen Kane.
Bruce Springsteen‘s song Nebraska is also based on the infamous Starkweather murder spree and was heavily influenced by watching Badlands.