This summer, among all the other goals I made for myself, I finished one that I’d wanted to do for about a year: finish seeing all five of Terrence Malick’s films. I’d seen his most recent three (all three of which I’ve written about on “Reel Christianity”), but I’d never been able to see his first two films. Today’s film, “Badlands”, was Malick’s directorial debut, and an excellent one. But it’s the one film of Malick’s that doesn’t have the Terrence Malick “feel” to it. “Badlands”, even though it has the signature narration that every Malick movie has and also contains a lot of pretty images of nature, has a well-structured narrative story that Malick’s other films don’t have. I think the non-linear, impressionistic style came along when Malick made “Days of Heaven” five years later. But I still really enjoyed “Badlands”, especially because it was a director’s first feature.
“Badlands” introduces us to Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), a teenage girl in 1950’s South Dakota with the sweet innocence that reminded me of Jessica Chastain’s character in Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. Holly, whose mother has passed away, lives with her father in sort of a strict home environment—if you want to call sending a girl to school and forbidding her to chase after suspicious-looking, older boys “strict”. However, she eventually meets Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a young man who presently collects garbage but soon meets Holly and starts falling for her.
The two of them do eventually fall in love, but Holly’s father disapproves. Kit, who tries to come across as macho even though you can’t help but be charmed by him, goes to Holly’s house one day with a gun and tells her father that she is going away with him to elope. As her father goes to call the police, Kit shoots him in the back and kills him. And showing very little emotion, Kit and Holly decide that they need to run away. Unsure of where they’re heading, they eventually head towards the Badlands of Montana.
On the way there, they get themselves in even more trouble but still manage to avoid the police. They find shelter in the woods for a short time before authorities catch up with them, but Kit kills several of them and the two of them run off once again. They stay at the house of a friend of Kit’s, but when they get suspicious of him too, Kit kills him. And they even are able to stay in the house of a wealthy man (who welcomes him very peacefully, for some reason), and they stay there for enough time before authorities start coming after them again.
But soon, Holly (who kills no one, for the record) starts to feel guilt about their escapades. And as we hear in her narration, she goes from feeling like a smitten teenager to a scared young woman:
HOLLY: One day… it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody... this very moment... if my mom had never met my dad... if she had never died. And what's the man I'll marry gonna look like? What's he doing right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn't know me? Does it show on his face? For days afterwards I lived in dread. Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, and this never happened.
And one day, when a helicopter identifies Kit and Holly, and the police chase after Kit, Holly decides to stay where she is and be caught, so that this can all be over. Kit doesn’t go too quietly, but eventually he is caught by the police, put in jail, and soon sentenced to die in the electric chair, while Holly gets probation.
One of the other reasons why “Badlands” stands out as so different from all of Terrence Malick’s other films is because the spiritual aspects in this film are not as prevalent as his other works. But even though it’s not as clear as his other work, there’s still some lessons to be found here. “Badlands” is based on a true story (the names were changed in the film), but sometimes it feels like one of those stories in the Old Testament about people on the run—and there are a lot of them.
But it also feels a little like stories in the Old Testament where people recognize wrongdoing and accept the punishment for it. One example of this is King David, after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered. When the prophet Nathan came to him and convicted him, David wrote what we now know as Psalm 51, where he asks God for forgiveness: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (51:10-12)
How humbling it is to kneel before God and ask Him to forgive us for our sins! But as I talked a little about last month in another article, God is ready to forgive us as long as we are committed to lay our sins and our past down before Him. My prayer for you this week is that you would have that willingness to surrender before God—for even if you receive a punishment on this earth, your Heavenly Father will remember your sins no more.