Is Badlands the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 2013, Criterion interviewed Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and Jack Fisk about the production of Badlands. It’s all worth watching, but the standout comment is when Sissy Spacek says “things were different then.” She’s talking about how audiences received the movie in 1973 and how they never laughed, even at moments she expected people to laugh at. Spacek says people laugh now because they live in a different time. The 70s were harder, meaner, and people saw this film about the 50s in the 70s and reacted accordingly.

You have to put yourself in the space a movie came out in to really approach it honestly, but you also live in your own time. Badlands is about a string of murders that really happened in 1958. It was released in 1973. Sissy Spacek was commenting on it in 2013. We’re in 2021, now. You might be in another time when you read this. On a long enough timeline all of those times are the same, but you know that that they aren’t. When you watch an older movie, you have to watch it through a different lens. Parasite and Wings both won Oscars, but you owe it to Wings to judge it differently.

This isn’t to say that Badlands doesn’t hold up in 2021. It absolutely does. It’s so many movies at the same time: a love story between two unlikely characters, a road movie with no real destination, a true crime drama, and, in a way, a monster movie. Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers is a dashing rogue, sorta, but he’s mostly a terrifying force of nature who upsets everyone he meets, if he doesn’t outright murder them.

Kit Carruthers is based on Charles Starkweather, a real murderer who killed people with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Caril becomes Holly Sargis in Badlands, with very little changed other than the names. There are details different between the true events and the film, but it never really matters beyond the start of the plot. In real life Charles Starkweather murdered Caril’s family and waited for her, in the film he murders Holly’s father in front of her. It’s a really critical difference because it gives us a look into how Holly is going to respond to what comes next.

The shooting itself is horrific. Kit goes wide-eyed during an argument with Holly’s father and asks him “suppose I shot you, how’d that be?” Holly’s father doesn’t think he’s serious and turns his back, which proves to be a huge mistake. So many movies would use this moment to show us Holly in grief, with a big scream and a panic attack. Or, maybe, they’d show her as cold-blooded and have no reaction, thus establishing her as a psychopath and someone we needn’t feel sorry for when it all goes bad. Badlands does neither. Holly asks if he’s going to be okay or if he needs a doctor. Kit says no, and that he’ll be back later. He goes as far as to tell Holly she can call the cops if she wants, but that it’ll be bad for him if she does.

It’s all matter-of-fact. Dad had to die because he wouldn’t allow them to be together. Both of them want to be together, so this is just what came next. Holly doesn’t like her life and Kit seems to open a door into another one, so she steps through. She cries and she wanders around the house smoking, unsure of what she should do but also not nearly bothered enough by this disaster. Kit tells her he found a toaster. It’s a funny line, but it’s also a look into who he is. He’s mad at the world, but not in the way we’re used to seeing murderers mad at the world. This isn’t for justice, necessarily, it’s just what has to happen.

Kit’s character is entirely in the look. Martin Sheen says they tried to get him to wear a cowboy hat and it didn’t really work, which seems obvious when you watch the performance. He’s James Dean, or at least he thinks he is, and the look is everything. Holly tells us who she is through voiceover, which would be jarring in a lesser film. We don’t get to see much that would tell us how she feels or what she wants, and “tell don’t show” isn’t a saying for a reason. Voiceover is sometimes a crutch, but Terrence Malick lets Holly tell us things we couldn’t have any way of knowing. When she ends the film telling us what happened to her, we feel conflicted about her role in all of this. Without the voiceover she seems aimless and bored. With it, she confirms that she’s doing all of this of her own free will, but also that she hasn’t really interrogated why she’s doing it or what it’s going to look like before it happens. She’s here, but not.

In that special feature from 2013, Jack Fisk says “our lives may be meaningless or they may be perfect, it’s hard to tell.” He was the art director for Badlands and he put things in drawers that the audience would never see, just to keep the actors in the space they need to be in for characters to feel real. Fisk fell in love with Spacek on the set and they later married. He went on to do design for several masterpieces, including There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Mullholland Drive. He’s a legend in the field, but Badlands stands out especially. The look of the movie has to do a lot of heavy lifting with main characters that say very little, and Badlands is beautiful. We’re in the open wilderness for a lot of the movie and it’s easy to get lost in the background in the best way possible.

The real magic trick of Badlands is how you feel about Kit and Holly. Kit is an unrepentant murderer. Holly is a passenger, but also signing on for all of this every day until she decides it’s boring. Still, you don’t find yourself in the space you’d usually be in for a movie like this. Kit isn’t scary outside of the actual murders, as crazy as that sentence is to consider. I found myself viewing his victims with a sense of dread, knowing that they were doomed but not always immediately connecting their death to Kit’s decisions. It’s what makes this all more complicated than a cheaper, easier take on this same idea, like Falling Down.

Kit tells us why he’s doing this, sorta, but it isn’t what matters. What matters is the scenery and the passage of time, which makes Holly’s narration all the more beautiful. We’re Holly, just waking up every day and getting back in the car. Nearly everyone involved here went on to make bigger (definitely) and better (maybe) things, and they left their touch on this story in a way that rewards successive viewings even though you know where it’s all going the first time you see Kit fire that shot.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Journey to Italy hinges on your ability to believe the turn at the end and it asks you to look at some beautiful scenery to get to that turn. Badlands isn’t about journey or destination. It’s about what happens, sure, but it’s not as simple as that. Martin Sheen says it’s still the best script he’s ever read and it’s not an overstatement. There’s nothing you need to unpack or examine. It’s just what it is, which is so much scarier to contend with than a motive.

Is it the best movie of all time? I think, so far, it is! I liked Badlands a lot when I saw it first but I loved it when I had time to think about it. It’s beautiful to watch and a little terrifying to consider. You could examine Kit in a number of ways but what’s actually on the screen doesn’t tell you much about why all this is happening. It also doesn’t really ask you to figure it out. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Nebraska” for Nebraska because he saw Badlands and wanted to explore why Kit does what he does. It’s something to create a murder story that’s “haunting” but it’s altogether more complicated to make something that mixes that terror with the mundane.

You can watch Badlands on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon for $2.99 You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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