In Badlands (1973) fifteen-year-old Holly Sargis falls for James Dean look-a-like Kit Carruthers. He’s handsome and charismatic, but he’s ten years older; a looser without a future. When Holly’s father vocally disapproves of her relationship with a rubbish collector, Kit murders her father and they flee. The rest of the story plays out like a self-destructive suicide note.
This is an American tragedy that’s told more of less objectively, even Holly’s voiceover narrative comes across as weirdly distant. The story doesn’t judge the characters. Kit and Holly’s relationship is doomed from the outset, which makes their deluded hope of a new life completely futile. Their makeshift forest camp in the woods, echoing Huckleberry Finn, provides a transient retreat from society.
Badlands is a story about a dysfunctional American dream. When a white working-class delinquent has nothing in his life worth living for except his love of a schoolgirl, someone he can never be with. There are parallels here with The Last Picture Show (1971) with the depiction of dead-end small-town America.
The violence is handled matter-of-factly, not glamorised. The outcome of Kit’s violence never produces any gain. It seems like one pointless act after another, never really solving any of his problems, only making things worse. It’s incredibly casual and spontaneous. Kit knows he’s going to get caught. It’s only a matter of time. One could argue that Kit is a classic American delinquent in the vein of a Marlon Brando or a James Dean character, but he also fits into the psychopathic character of American Psycho; using charm and charisma, and when that doesn’t work readily resorting to violence, as if that is completely normal.
The film is immersed in Americana, a lost golden age, a nostalgia for American greatness perhaps, a time when Cadillac’s had tail fins. The cinematography has a poetic quality to it. The viewpoint is objective and the camera work unassuming. It avoids gimmick. In the moments where the characters are surrounded by nature, the landscape seems heavy with resonance and implication. This hints at the cathedral of nature in The Thin Red Line. It suggests a wider context, the bigness of time, being within an almost boundless space – passing through history.
Holly’s narrative, even with its apparent young adult naivety, feels vaguely literary. Although she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s the one making sense of all this for the audience. Her summary of events at the end of the film, as if she’s reading out from her diary, is heard alongside the image of a beautiful sunset, which suggests the metaphysical.
This story is a tragedy and a warning, but one without a political agenda. It doesn’t point any blame. It leaves the judgement to the audience. Kit is certainly a monster, but not one from a horror story or a terrifying creature from outer space; he is an ordinary monster from our everyday reality, a handsome monster with a convincing chat-up line, but no less destructive.