Holly Sargis (Spacek) is a 15-year-old girl living in a small town in South Dakota in the late 1950s. She meets Kit Carruthers (Sheen), an anti-social young greaser and petty criminal ten years older than Holly who works as a garbageman. Holly's father (Warren Oates) forbids the relationship. Kit decides to run away with Holly, but when Holly's father interrupts him while he's packing her clothes, Kit impulsively shoots him to death. This begins a cross-country crime spree, as Kit and Holly flee through the badlands of South Dakota and into Montana, with bounty-hunters and police in pursuit.
Badlands was the first film by writer-director Malick. Orson Welles is probably the only other director to make as big a splash with a debut feature. It was Inspired by the true-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate across Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958, which also served as the basis of Natural Born Killers.
Tropes in this film:
- Affably Evil: Kit speaks politely to just about everyone, right up until he shoots them. After he gets caught, he is polite and cooperative towards the cops.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Holly is swept off her feet by Kit the dangerous anti-hero.
- Blade-of-Grass Cut: A trademark of Malick throughout his career. Here there is a series of tight closeups of plants and bugs and wildlife as Kit and Holly lead their peaceful existence in the hut that Kit has built for them in the forest by a river.
- Booby Trap: In one of the more telling scenes that show Kit is dangerous, Holly helps him test out a snare that brings down a knotted mass of sharpened spikes like a flail mace.
- Bounty Hunter: Three of them try to storm Kit and Holly's little hut in the woods, but Kit hides himself in a blind and kills all three of the bounty hunters.
- Celebrity Resemblance: Holly notes that Kit resembles James Dean. Appropriate, given Kit's Dean-style rebelliousness. One of the cops who arrests Kit makes the same connection.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Kit and Holly's sheer detachment to the crimes they commit (such Kit's abrupt murder of Holly's father and Holly's carrying on a casual conversation with Cato whilst he's bleeding to death) make them a particularly disturbing variant of this.
- Creator Cameo: Terrence Malick plays the well-dressed architect (he's carrying some rolled-up blueprints) who calls at the house of the rich man that Kit is holding captive. This is an especially notable cameo since Malick has shunned publicity for most of his life and is rarely photographed.
- Dies Wide Open: Both Holly's father and Cato, the friend that Kit shoots in the back.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Holly has a habit of running around barefoot. In her first scene, she's barefoot in her bed, and heads outside just like so. You can tell she has shoes under her bed but she remains barefoot by choice. She spends the start of the movie practicing baton and wandering through her neighborhood barefooted with visibly tarnished feet. What makes her don shoes and socks is when her father gets out some varnish and flicks it at the ground and she squeals when it splatters on her bare feet. She also goes barefoot multiple times while shacked up in the woods with Kit, most noticeable when she dances with him and soaks her feet by the lake. She also doesn't seem to mind being in just socks, as she has her shoes off at rest in a yellow dress while in socks and her shoes are taken away near the end of the movie when she's in custody to prevent her from running away and she doesn't seem bothered with socked feet outdoors when she's marched off to a guarded plane.
- Downer Ending: Both Holly and Kit are captured and arrested and sent off to stand trial. Holly trades up flames... while Kit goes to the chair.Holly (in voiceover): Kit and I were taken back to South Dakota. They kept him in solitary... so he didn't have a chance to get to know the other inmates... though he was sure they'd like him, especially the murderers. Myself, I got off with probation and a lot of nasty looks. Later, I married the son of the lawyer who defended me. Kit went to sleep in the courtroom while his confession was bein' read... and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. On a warm, spring night, six months later... after donatin' his body to science, he did.
- The Dying Walk: Kit shoots his friend Cato after he realizes Cato is going to call the cops. Cato, who has taken a shotgun blast that went clean through his gut and out through his back, gets up, staggers back into his shack, and lies down on his bed to die.
- The Foreign Subtitle: In German the film is Badlands: Zerschossene Träume — Shot-apart Dreams.
- Greaser Delinquents: A particularly dark example in Kit the greasy 1950s hoodlum.
- Karma Houdini: Holly. She tells us that she married the son of the lawyer who defended her, and "I got off with probation and some harsh looks."
- Kick the Dog: Holly doesn't have a very affectionate relationship with her father, which is demonstrated when Holly's father kills her dog as punishment for hanging out with Kit.
- Missing Mom: Holly's mother is long dead of pneumonia, possibly explaining why her father and her have such a distant relationship.
- Outlaw Couple: The film makes perfectly clear that Holly stays with Kit out of her own free will. Holly muses about why she didn't run away when she had the chance, saying that she felt her destiny was tied up with Kit.
- Revenge by Proxy: Holly qualifies, due to bringing Kit over to her house- Kit murdered her father. Holly basically doesn't show much remorse over the fact her abusive dad gets offed by Kit and she's now an orphan, and actually seems to welcome it.
- Road Trip Plot: A dark and disturbing one, as the two young lovers flee across the badlands, murdering as they go.
- Roman à Clef: The Charles Starkweather murders, with the names changed and some details messed with. Most of the changes serve to make Kit and Holly less monstrous than their Real Life counterparts. The real Starkweather didn't just kill Fugate's father, he killed her mother, stepfather, and two-year-old baby sister. The real Starkweather didn't let that rich guy in the fancy house live, but instead killed him, his wife, and the maid. Fugate mutilated the corpse of the young woman who died with her boyfriend in the storm cellar. At his trial, Starkweather claimed that Fugate killed two of the victims attributed to him (the young woman in the storm cellar, and the rich man's wife).
- Scenery Porn: Wouldn't be a Terrence Malick movie without it. Here the stark beauty of the badlands is used to great effect.
- The Sociopath: Kit, obviously, given the casual and untroubled way he kills. But one of the more interesting things about the film is the suggestion that Holly is just as bad a sociopath as Kit is, and maybe worse. There's her narration, which throughout the film casts their story as a fairy-tale romance while Kit is going around murdering people. She shows nothing but Dull Surprise as Kit's body count mounts, except for one time when she slaps him after he kills her father. She has an idle and pointless conversation with Cato while a gutshot Cato bleeds to death. And while Kit at least has an emotional connection to her, she doesn't seem to love him that much at all, and she eventually casts him off when she gets bored. As they are living a quiet existence in the woods for a few days following her father's murder, Holly says of Kit:"At times I wished he'd fall in the river and drown, so I could watch."
- Star-Crossed Lovers: An especially dark take on this trope, as Kit and Holly react to the forces keeping them apart by lashing out with violence.
- Title Drop: "Little did I realize that what began in the alleys and backways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana."
- Troubled, but Cute: Kit is pretty obviously nothing but trouble, even before he starts murdering people. But he's a very pretty man, and Holly is irresistibly drawn to him.
- Unreliable Narrator: There is a dramatic contrast between Holly's dreamily romantic narration of their adventures and the evil, murderous things Kit is actually doing.