Kit and Holly fall for each other in Terrence Malick’s Badlands the way so many young people do—quickly and intensely. As Holly practices her baton routine in her front yard, Kit stops dead in his tracks at the sight of her. It’s a love story we’ve seen time and again, the only problem? Holly is 15 and Kit is 25 and as the events of the film ultimately reveal, both violent and unstable. But Badlands doesn’t follow the path you’d expect here, either. What we see of Kit and Holly’s relationship is neither horrifyingly violent nor passionately romantic. Instead, it occupies a strange space somewhere else entirely: a world of fantasy.
However, the fantastical elements of their relationship don’t live in moonlit kisses or deep proclamations of undying love. Instead, it’s in the pure improbability of Holly’s recollections, and no scene illustrates this better than when the two of them make their grand escape after burning down her father’s house. They flee to the woods where they live in a Robinson Crusoe-esque fortress that can only be described as unbelievable in the truest sense of the word. The scale of it, the network of tunnels Holly insists they built beneath it, the elaborate protections they install around it ... none of it is possible. It serves as a signal to the audience that everything that’s happened in the film so far and everything that will happen is nothing more than a story Holly tells herself. The murder and the fire are just minor plot points in a grand adventure that could have happened to someone else.
Malick is toying with us and our expectations, perhaps here more than anywhere else. The whole scene, or really this interconnected string of scenes, is bathed in a constant warm glow. When you watch it, you can almost feel the summer sun on your cheeks, the breeze on your fingertips, and the tall grass slapping at your bare shins. But it isn’t a real place.
It’s a summer daydream come to life. It’s the kind of place little children imagine running off to when their parents tell them to clean their rooms and they, defiant and self-assured, take the request as the deepest insult for which escape is the only solution and the only proper punishment for those left behind.
This hideaway is important to Holly and Kit, and it symbolizes something greater, maybe the life they imagine wanting for themselves, or the future they can’t quite realize. Somewhere where they have complete control over their lives, want for nothing, and stay safely insulated against the pressures and demands of the outside (read: adult) world.
Specifically, it’s the fields and forests that feel the most like a haven, while the river where they fish seems to serve as a connection to the threat of society. It’s there where Holly permits a slice of reality to enter her narrative. After a truly dreamy scene where Holly applies Twiggy-esque eyeliner in a field bathed in golden light, Malick cuts to a shot of the two of them along the banks of decidedly un-dreamy river.
Kit’s waded into the water, his net raised high, desperate to catch fish that seem to be eluding him, while Holly sits off to the side, her feet dangling over the edge of the muddy bank but not reaching the water. It’s at this moment that Holly’s narration cuts back in:
“We had our bad moments like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown so I could watch.”
Her voice doesn’t rise or waver when she says this. There’s no malice, either. It’s matter of fact, the same way she describes her father, the forest she’s living in, and every other aspect of her world. The violent terms in which she describes her frustration with Kit is almost shocking. We’ve seen her lack of emotion over the death of father, but this is the first time she’s made any direct reference to violence and the fact that it’s directed at Kit is surprising.
But this line is immediately followed by a reversal: “Mostly though we got along fine and stayed in love.”
Here, Malick shows the young couple essentially playing house in their makeshift homestead. Kit’s bent over a wash basin studying his face in a small mirror as he shaves. Holly, hair wrapped up in rollers like the magazine picture of a housewife, walks up to let him know one of their chickens has died in the night. It all plays out like a scene from somewhere else entirely, like a student production of Leave It to Beaver. They’re dressing the part and reading their lines, but they’re only an imitation of Norman Rockwell. They’re too young and naive and no matter how hard they pretend, they don’t quite fit. A 15 year old in her mother’s heels is still a 15 year old.
The narration in these scenes is almost constant, with Holly’s storytelling weaving together one shot with the next, and it’s her next bit of narration that reveals the most about how Holly sees this time in her life. Looking through her father’s old 3D Stereopticon she’s suddenly struck by the general meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of her own existence, and it’s while lost in this thought that she wonders, “What’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like? What’s he doin’ right this minute? Is he thinking about me now by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me?”
So it finally becomes clear that even Holly, or at least in the way Holly recounts the story, sees her relationship with Kit as temporary. She clearly wants to believe that she loves him, and perhaps she does, but more important is the fantasy around him. It becomes clear that however Holly feels, Kit’s not entirely wrong. She’s very much along for the ride; she just doesn’t seem to be aware that that’s what she’s doing. The spell over it all won’t be broken until the very end, when it all falls apart and the bodycount has risen. Then it starts to make sense why this entire adventure is just a story to Holly. If it weren’t, how could she have survived it?