Holly (Sissy Spacek) was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in Eisenhower era America who had let life carry her along in its wake, never more content than when she was twirling her baton mindlessly. But then nineteen-year-old Kit (Martin Sheen) introduced himself, he had a job collecting garbage which he liked well enough since it offered him the opportunity to rifle through other people's bins and take his pick of anything interesting and potentially saleable that they may have thrown away. But one day he lost that job, which bothered him a little but he had met Holly then too, and he was immediately attracted to her, finding her different from other girls in a way that he liked, and the feeling was mutual - dangerously mutual.
Terrence Malick had been involved in the film industry for a short while, but was not keen on what it was doing to his scripts therefore decided to direct one himself. He actually only helmed two films in the nineteen-seventies, this and Days of Heaven before taking a long break from the screen; after that there was no stopping him and he churned out projects at what was for him breakneck speed, though his previous golden boy reputation from the critics began to fade when the consensus was he had blotted his copybook with too many substandard efforts. Better then, to return to his debut Badlands, for in many ways it might just have been the best film he was ever involved with, still bewitching with its deadpan malice decades later.
In case you had not noticed, Holly was a blank slate that nobody had so much as scrawled on, the epitome of youthful banality who defined herself by what fan magazines told her, hence her fan adoration of Kit who is only too happy to bask in that glow. This was less an indictment of fifties America as seen through the prism of its near future and more a scathing accusation of celebrity culture, where becoming famous was an end in itself, no matter how you went about it. Kit went about it in a way that had been practiced since time immemorial, he killed a bunch of people and made the public fear him, as if that would engender some respect; obviously going on reality television is a lot more acceptable a way to gain fame, but the chilling thing was Malick was pointing out celebrity is all pretty much the same.
In that it involves a strong degree of self-mythologising and inviting the masses to buy into that frame of mind, a two-way street that if Kit had been ignored then he would not have sought the notoriety even many of the major movie stars would have attained - not for nothing does he compare himself to James Dean, and it's the pinnacle of his unlovely career that someone tells him of that self-same resemblance unprompted. By the end Kit is as famed as the biggest stars in the country, nay, the world, and all he had to do was pull the trigger on a bunch of folks he couldn't care less about, starting with Holly's father who objects to their relationship. As essayed by Warren Oates, in a small handful of scenes he sums up the scepticism of the film as to the worth of Kit's outlaw glamour, for in the father's eyes this is just some young punk who by all rights should not amount to anything.
You can almost feel the frustration as Kit and Holly's renown grows and grows the more victims he claims, yet this was undercut by cruelly dark comedy in how the female half of the couple narrates, depicting their romance as one of the greatest of its era, and the golden visuals seem to be agreeing with her, only when it is interrupted by her boyfriend's violence it is quick, brutal and pointless, bringing us up short. Needless to say, this would have been a tricky proposition without two excellent performances at its heart, and Spacek and Sheen were quite superb as fan and idol, courting the excitement we feel from watching celebrities yet with a detectable irony that they were actually depicting idiots, and shame on the public (and us, by extension) for buying into their own deluded self-image. You could not even say it would never happen, as Malick based his tale on the real life crimes of Charles Starkweather and his partner Caril Ann Fugate, only toned down for their activities were if anything even worse. The conclusion was to embarrass us for lavishing attention on criminals: it only encourages them. George Tipton wrote the score, accompanied by some well-chosen extracts of other pieces now indelibly linked to this film.