Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’ (Film Essay), November 2011.


At the beginning of her essay Hannah Paterson makes a claim that the escapist journey of Holly and Kit could be read “as motivated by their need to find, and more fully construct, identities for themselves.” (Paterson, 2003 p28) Paterson’s essay asserts that Badlands presents viewers with barely a sense of Kit and Holly’s characters, denying the full access to a psychological depth of both protagonists as well as lacking further, if any, explanation for their actions. The following essay will attempt to justify this claim with a number of theories assisted by examples from my own research and reading into the film which support Paterson’s argument. It will consequently discuss the choice of narrative voice and its further repercussions on the narrative and our perception of events. It will also analyse portrayals of Holly and Kit in the light of Jacques Lacan’s use of terms: love, object of desire and, above all, the Lacanian idea of lack as cited by Fabio Vighi in his book Sexual Difference in European Cinema, The Curse of Enjoyment. The ending paragraph will focus on a wider cultural and historical context. It will thus discuss mythical character of the American West and its most notable themes of the road and the journey in relation to characters’ quest for identity. It will also touch upon the celebrity status underpinning American culture throughout history and its relation to Kit’s character. While doing so, it will put a significant emphasis on the importance of fantasy in forming a sense of identity, whilst simultaneously referring to a more collective unit of American youth, myth and rebellion.

The choice of a voice-over as a narrative voice has a most fundamental influence on our perception of Kit and Holly’s characters as well as the course of the events. Holly’s account of the events of her past, coming from an unknown and ambiguous point in the future, is interpretive and subjective, if not biased. It is confusing and limited in its subjectivity, as we only experience the story from a point of view of someone essentially affected by the (unfavourable to her) course of events. It is vital to notice that such narration may alter the flow of events, possibly exaggerate and highlight events that mattered to Holly alone, and indeed misrepresent a figure of Kit; principally an ex-lover whom Holly may or may not hold fond memories of.

The use of voice in the film should also be analysed on a dialogical level. Paterson notes in her essay how much Kit strives for an audience which he finds in Holly, and when he loses her, he finds it in the policemen that capture and arrest him. Kit claims to have a lot to say, yet he contradicts himself by being unable to fill a minute-long recording for the police. Consequently the film presents us with contrasted symbolic speech impairment, where both protagonists seem to be unable to communicate and, indeed, convey any meaning. The contrast lies precisely between how much Kit has to say, yet he does not communicate anything, and how much meaning we may observe in Holly’s voice-over through her thoughtful commentaries and even philosophical divagations, though she is also unable to express these in the course of the narrative. Paterson illustrates this point by drawing attention to a scene at the beginning of the film at which point, Kit, upon introducing himself to Holly, remarks “Oh, I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m kinda lucky that way. Most people don’t have anything on their minds do they?” as cited in Paterson’s essay (Paterson, 2003 p31), which is said soon after Holly’s thoughtful introduction in a voice-over only to add to its ironic and contrasting effect.

In relation to the lack of a comprehensive psychological portrait of Kit and Holly’s characters, it is important to state that at no point are we given any insight into their background, nor are we presented with any other points of their interaction with the outside world, the protagonists’ past, and that of their relatives, friends or acquaintances, any of the events that have shaped and led them to the point at which they are introduced to us at the beginning of the film. The aforementioned components are necessary to constitute a broader, more comprehensive psychological portrait. In order to justify this claim, Paterson mentions the fact that Holly “says little in her opening voiceover about her mother’s death and her move from Texas to North Dakota.” (Paterson, 2003 p29) We learn nothing about Kit’s past prior to the point when he meets Holly, having been told nothing about his background, family, criminal past, previous employment etc. Paterson argues that both Holly and Kit do not feel defined by their past and hesitates to add “if they do, they certainly do not speak of it.” Furthermore, the whole story being essentially Holly’s recollection of the events may carry deeper meaning behind the absence of the past in the film, as discussed in the second paragraph. It is important to the characters’ struggle for identity to outline what both Kit and Holly do not or may not know about themselves and each other. Paterson here presents a valid example that contributes substantially to her conclusion: “Kit does not know why he wears the boots.” To the same extent he does not know why he wears the boots, he does not seem to be able to justify his crimes and violent behaviour, and indeed, he never gives any reasons for why he is with Holly.

It is primarily through one another that Holly and Kit seek part of their identity. Paterson notes that Kit “is, in a very obvious and conventional way, allowed a form of identity simply by being one half of couple.” (Paterson, 2003 p32) Similarly Holly “has someone who wants her, who wants to be in her company.” Paterson also indicates that “Kit never at any point states his reasons for wanting to be with Holly” (Paterson, 2003 p32). Holly on the contrary refers to the very surface of the mythical mass identity Kit adopts, which will be further discussed in a subsequent paragraph, by comparing Kit to James Dean. The role of the other in Holly and Kit’s quest for identity could thus be reflected in Vighi’s reading of Lacan, where he cites “To love is, essentially, to wish to be loved (Lacan 1998a: 253)” (Vighi, 2009 p139), supporting this argument further with the following explanation: “(…) what we truly search for is always the part of ourselves that we have lost forever, and that can only surface, as lack (…)” (Vighi, 2009 pp139-140). The drive behind the characters’ actions could indeed be identified with the Lacanian object of desire – which supposes the impossibility of fulfilment, an argument that would be supported by the film’s circular – reversed – ending, which essentially lacks in the fulfilment of Kit and Holly’s physical and metaphysical journey. To conclude, Lacan’s lack seems to prevail and underpin all of the film’s themes, further examples of which will be identified and developed in subsequent paragraphs.

The aforementioned reversed motion is most accurately reflected in Holly’s reversal to the role of a man’s object of desire, a status and sense of identity she has formerly established with Kit. Throughout the film Holly continuously constructs her identity around Kit. When beginning to see a flaw – a visible lack – in Kit, instead of attempting to independently construct a more meaningful self, she reverses to become the wife of the son of a lawyer who defended her in court. Paterson notes that: “If we consider that their opacity as characters signalled their fundamental lack of a strong sense of identity and their actions were prompted by their need to find one then Kit has indeed succeeded where Holly has failed.” (Paterson, 2003 p38) Despite the potential for independent development that is so clearly hinted at in the voiceover, throughout the film Holly sees herself solely through men, not attempting to construct a form of identity by and within herself. Considering the film’s final sequences, Paterson once again asserts that “Kit has managed – more successfully than Holly – to develop a clearer sense of identity, one which does not fit into this society but is an identity nonetheless.” (Paterson, 2003 p38)

The aforementioned success could be considered to be related to the wider context of cultural identity. Although both Kit and Holly significantly lack their past, many allusions are drawn to what could be referred to as the collective, mythical past. While on the road to find “identities for themselves”, Holly and Kit seem to leap back to the American mythology of the road and the West as well as its recent popular iconography (a poignant usage of a figure of James Dean). Paterson’s conclusion of the disparity between Kit’s success and Holly’s failure could thus be interpreted through the observance of Kit’s succumbing to the collective memory and myth, and therefore forming a sense of identity for himself (which could be identified as a progressive motion), while Holly’s apparent reversal pinpoints her failure.

Kit and Holly aspire to, adopt and abandon successive temporal identities throughout the course of their journey, it is Kit, however, who leads all these actions, with Holly passively finding solace in and through Kit. Along the way he desires to become a respectable figure in a society like the rich man whose house he captures, or a young man, like the one he traps and presumably kills, yet the only identity he seems able to fulfil is the one of a star: a wanted, and thus desired celebrity, which could also be associated with Lacan’s theory of love and desire. Due to his lack of self-awareness and therefore lack for justification of his actions, it is hard to discuss Kit’s character by using terms such as criminal or murderer, despite his crimes. Kit, unlike Holly, possesses a strong aspiration, which is the one to be desired. This again could be ascribed to a popular culture born and prevailing in the grandioso America of Hollywood. This argument is supported by the police’s treatment of Kit, where they both acknowledge his similarity to James Dean and the police forming an audience bordering on fans’ admiration, thus fulfilling Kit’s adopted identity built upon pure egoistic fantasy. His character could therefore be read in a self-reflexive dimension as representative of the newly born youth rebel myth, represented in American cinematography of New Hollywood, the film draws references to (James Dean, similarities to Natural Born Killers, Bonnie & Clyde etc.). Kit thus might also be representative of American youth in the light of the new “pop” context as well as fake mass identity, pop culture carries motion of.

In conclusion, all the provided examples support Hannah Paterson’s claim that Badlands only touches upon senses of Kit and Holly’s characters, without offering a wider comprehensive psychological portrait. This claim is justified by the film not granting viewers access to Kit and Holly’s past and background, denying Kit his own voice in the story, and not presenting any explanation or justification for their crimes, journey, and, finally, Holly and Kit wanting to be with one another. This essay attempted to exceed Paterson’s analysis and read Terence Malick’s characters in terms of a wider sociological and cultural context. It has also hazarded the attempt to interpret Holly and Kit’s actions through a simplified use of Lacan’s terminology. These proved to support Paterson’s initial claim.


Paterson, Hannah. (2003) Two Characters in Search of Direction: Motivation and the Construction of Gender in Badlands. The Cinema of Terence Malick: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions, ed. Hannah Patterson. London: Wallflower Press, pp. 27-39.

Vighi, Fabio. (2009) Sexual Difference in European Cinema, The Curse of Enjoyment. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


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