Critics Consensus

Terrence Malick's debut is a masterful slice of American cinema, rife with the visual poetry and measured performances that would characterize his work.



Reviews Counted: 53

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Average Rating: 4.1/5

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"He wanted to die with me and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms." A young couple goes on a Midwest crime spree in Terrence Malick's hypnotically assured debut feature, based on the 1950s Starkweather-Fugate murders. Fancying himself a rebel like James Dean, twentysomething Kit (Martin Sheen) takes off with teen baton-twirler Holly (Sissy Spacek) after shooting her father (Warren Oates) when he tries to split the pair up. Once bounty hunters discover their riverside hiding place, Kit and Holly head toward Saskatchewan, leaving dead bodies in their wake. As the law closes in, however, Holly gives herself up -- but Kit doesn't hold it against her, as he basks in his new status as a momentary folk hero. Inaugurating the use of voice-over narration that he would continue in Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick juxtaposes Holly's flat readings of her flowery romance-novel diary prose with the banal and surreal details of their journey. Singularly inarticulate with each other, Kit and Holly are more intrigued by mythic celebrity gestures, as Holly peruses her fan magazines and Kit commemorates key moments before orchestrating a properly dramatic capture for himself (complete with the right hat). The sublime visuals lend a dreamlike beauty to the couple's trip even as their actions are treated casually; Malick neither glamorizes Kit and Holly nor consigns them to the bloody end of their fame-fixated predecessors in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). With the couple's opaque dialogue and Holly's fanzine dream narration, Malick further denies an easy explanation for their crimes. Made for under 500,000 dollars, Badlands debuted at the 1973 New York Film Festival, along with Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, and was released within months of two other outlaw-couple road movies, Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express and Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us. Although Badlands did not make an impression at the box office, its pictorial splendor and cool yet disquieting narrative established Malick as one of the most compelling artists to come out of early-'70s Hollywood. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi

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Critic Reviews for Badlands

All Critics (53) | Top Critics (7)

  • If a portion of American cinema is going to remain devoted to violence, it could learn a lot by revisiting Malick's thoughtfulness.

    Feb 20, 2018 | Full Review…

    Steve Erickson

    Top Critic
  • In the fall of 1973, one could see signposts of cinema's future in Mean Streets and The Exorcist, yet with this youthful pair of proto-indie dreamers, Malick was paving a whole new road. It turned out to be the path most traveled.

    May 7, 2013 | Rating: 5/5 | Full Review…
  • Days of Heaven put Terrence Malick's intuitions into cogent form, but this is where his art begins.

    Feb 8, 2010 | Full Review…
  • This first, magnificent, outpouring of the sporadic genius of cinema's equivalent to JD Salinger, Terrence Malick, still seems terrifically modern.

    Aug 29, 2008 | Rating: 5/6 | Full Review…

    Wally Hammond

    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • Written, produced and directed by Terrence Malick, pic is his first feature and it's an impressive debut.

    May 16, 2008 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Top Critic
  • Among the great American crime movies, 1973's Badlands stands alone.

    Jan 1, 2000 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Badlands

In today's society, the reality of the mainstream invading the private lives of many is a common occurrence. Even all the way back in 1973 it was apparent that the romanticizing of murderers was a glorifying tactic that led to more violence. We now have public murder trials, allover coverage, and constant media attention to people who should be shrouded in mystery, and shunned to the darkness from where they came. Terrence Malick, inspired by the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend in the fifties, tells the story of Kit and Holly, who rampage across the country in their own version of Romeo and Juliet. Very young, and manipulative, Kit (Sheen) controls Holly (Spacek) with his charisma and promises of love eternal. Though Holly has a lot of agency, and even seems disaffected by the entire ordeal, it is obvious that she is a simple pawn in Kit's ambiguously feral game against "the man." The voiceover from Holly gives a whimsical feel to the events, while also drawing into perspective the violence of their romance. The entire film feels adventurous and yet horrific, violent and yet humorous. A very prescient look into the future, as well as being an exercise in telling a simple story with waylaid characters, "Badlands" is beyond captivating.

Spencer S.
Spencer S.

Super Reviewer

The brilliant debut of Terence Malick is measured like a beautiful poem and chock full of sumptuous visuals. 'Badlands' is an impressionistic dream of a film.

Kase Vollebregt
Kase Vollebregt

Super Reviewer


Terrence Malick's stunning debut feature Badlands ranks among his finest works. Featuring brilliant performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, who have great chemistry on camera, Badlands is a violent tale that manages to be toned down by an easy atmosphere that is one of Malick's signatures, by telling a story with a simple, yet friendly narrative provided by Spacek. Badlands is a tense picture that is quite riveting from start to finish, and Malick captures every tense, thrilling and unforgettable scene through his camera, and pains a graphic, atmospheric portrait of two psychos on a killing spree. Now I must admit, I never was a diehard fan of Malick's work because he tends to make movies that are for a specific audience and they tend to be a tad slow in the way the story unfolds, but visually they've always been stunning, and his style was unique. However I found that most of films were far too ambitious and lacked any memorable story. I'm not saying that I think Malick is a bad filmmaker, quite on the contrary, but I'm simply saying that his work is not for everyone and for me, I've found it hard to find one of his films to really grab my attention. However that's not the case with Badlands, and this is the second feature of Malick's that I've enjoyed, the first being The New World. Badlands is really the easiest film of his to get into, and if you're not into artful pictures, the type of cinema that Terrence Malick is so keen on tackling, then this film is the perfect place to start. The tone of the film is somewhat cheerful, but it works as a way to hide the true nature of the plot, which is absolutely genius in the way that Malick does it. While maintaining of somewhat innocent narrative throughout, Malick is able to grab your attention and you hooked through the two lead characters journey into chaos as they go into their killing spree. Badlands is a great film, and some viewers may disagree but I personally feel that it's Terrence Malick's masterpiece.

Alex roy
Alex roy

Super Reviewer


This is the wonderful and fascinating debut film of one of the most interesting and talented, yet secretive and least prolific filmmakers out there, Terrence Malick. The story, inspired by the real life case of Charles Starkweather, follows that of Kit Carruthers, a young aimless greaser who, along with his teenaged schoolgirl lover/companion Holly Sargis, sets out on a murder spree across Montana and South Dakota. The film is pretty light on plot and also a great amount of depth and insight into the characters and motivations, but even then, it's still a captivating study of how Holly knows that Kit is dangerous and sociopathetic, yet still finds him likeable and views their little odyssey with a great sense of innocence and naivety. It's a curious mix of crime film, road movie, and lighthearted poetic romance. It's not for everyone, but I sure was taken in by it, and I'm not surprised by it's impact and influence. Both Oliver Stone and Tony Scott heavily cribbed from it (for Natural Born Killers and True Romance, respectively), and I'm sure a lot of others have too, but those two stick out the most. The greatest things about this film, other than its curious nature and how interesting it is, are the excellent cinematography and the wonderful performances. Martin Sheen is likeable and seductively malevolent, but very cold blodded and callous. It's a tremendous job. Sissy Spacek though, is the one who really shines here. Her turn as the innocent and naive, but not completely ignorant Holly is a great showcase for her immense talents and low key beauty, both of which are far too often underappreciated. The music, like the visuals, is quite sublime and very catchy. This is a loose and breezy film, yet it never feels shallow or pretentious. I also like how it never overtly condemns or praises the couple or their actions. All in all, I think this is some excellent stuff, and definitely feel you should give it a shot.

Chris Weber
Chris Weber

Super Reviewer

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