7 Scenes We Love From ‘Badlands’

By  · Published on October 13th, 2013

As I noted in a Scenes We Love post on True Romance last month, Terrence Malick’s Badlands is among my top five favorite films. It might even be my very favorite, which is interesting because I don’t love any of the director’s other works (I do like some, hate one…). Now I get to showcase the film itself, because today marks the 40th anniversary of its premiere as the closing night selection of the 11th New York Film Festival.

The trouble is, how do you select specific scenes from a film you love so much and find so brilliant that there’s not one worthless second let alone scene in the whole thing? Badlands is a perfect specimen of cinema to me, so few things stand out above others. Fortunately, I don’t get to do too much choosing since there aren’t too many clips actually available online.

So, as Kit (Martin Sheen) would do, let’s mark our memories with what we can find (if these were rocks, it’d also be what we can carry). And as Holly (Sissy Spacek) would do, I’ll offer some commentary that is subjectively selective, not completely descriptive and, since I’ve never wanted to know too much about the production of the film, probably rather naive. Don’t judge me for not being as poetic, though; I won’t even try.

And don’t judge the video quality of the clips, which may still be better than the time I went to finally see Badlands on the big screen and it turned out to be a projected DVD.

Introductions With Dogs

Both Holly and Kit are with dogs when they’re introduced. First it is she on her bed with her pet, then we meet him at work as a garbage man finding a dead “collie” and offering Cato a dollar to eat it. Later on Holly’s dog would be dead, too, shot dead by her father. There’s a metaphor for Sheen’s character in there given that he’s based on Charles Starkweather, who was reportedly called the “Mad Dog Killer.” I’ve always thought of the scene where Cato decides to betray the couple and then Kit shoots him as related to dogs and loyalty and biting the hand that feeds and all that. The music in the film’s opening, Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” is probably my favorite of all time. I even picked it as the music I walked to the altar during at my wedding.

Burning Holly’s Youth

More Carl Orff plays on the soundtrack here, taking over from the looping record Kit has left claiming the couple has committed suicide. Malick’s concentration in the montage is a little on-the-nose as far as showing things Holly has lost in the fire. There’s a doll and a dollhouse as well as the body of her daddy. Symbols of her youth are being burned away. But it’s the most stunning fire I’ve ever seen in a movie. The fact that there are such focused close-ups within the blaze is incredible. I heard there was even a camera lost to the flames and crew members nearly died.

Hiding Out Like Spies

As a kid, one of my favorite movies was Swiss Family Robinson. As an adult, Badlands. I will clearly always have a thing for elaborate treehouses in movies and continue dreaming of my own, also decorated with Maxfield Parrish paintings and surrounded with booby traps. I’d also dance to oldies and for inexplicable reason carry large bunches of wood five mile distances.

Where Would I Be This Very Moment?

Like it does Holly, this part sends a chill down my own spine every time. I wonder where I would be this very moment if I’d never seen Badlands or if it never existed. What movie would I be writing a Scenes We Love for? Three things that always come to mind during this sequence are: I wonder what’s so funny in that National Geographic, and don’t we all know what it’s like when we want to share something we’ve just read and find funny? If only Kit had Twitter (for many reasons); Isn’t it the most telling bit of the entire voiceover when Holly says she wonders about the man she’s going to marry? Not Kit apparently; And does anyone else think of Days of Heaven when the stereopticon photo of the girl holding wheat comes on screen?

Bounty Hunters

This scene always gets under my skin, in a good way but still sort of uncomfortable. Part of it’s the music, another Carl Orff piece entitled “Hexeneinmaleins” that’s filled with creepy whispers. There’s also the graphic shotgun blast ripping a hole in the bounty hunters’ backs. It also always upsets me that this awesome little utopia is ruined for Kit and Holly. Almost as bad as seeing that the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse at Disneyland is now called Tarzan’s treehouse. Somewhat embarrassingly, when Sheen pops out from that underground hideout it reminds me of his son doing something similar in Red Dawn? Yes, because of when I grew up, I saw Red Dawn first.

“A Blossom Fell”

Malick is on the nose again with the scene when Kit and Holly dance to Nat King Cole in the headlights. She looks as ready to be done with him as she can be, and with the further realization for us that the whole utopia is gone, the song’s lyrics talk of true love dying. Kit seems as clueless as he can be, thinking this is a romantic tune like the one he wishes he could write and sing about the moment he believes this to be.

Excuse the Grammar

I can say that there is one spot of dialogue I like to quote more than others: a short monologue Kit records with the dictaphone about considering minority opinions but always getting along with the majority opinions (some advice for our current congress?). He has a lot to say and likes to leave his mark. I’ve always identified with him on that, and I’ve always appreciated this “keep an open mind” speech especially out of the context of it being spoken by a sociopath. The scene is sadly not online on its own, but the entirety of the monologue is heard in the original trailer for the movie, seen below.

You can find a few more extended clips with multiple scenes each on the TCM website. And you can watch the movie now via iTunes and Amazon Streaming. But as someone who doesn’t own a lot of movies, I’d recommend one of the few I do own: the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Badlands.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.