Holly Sargis narrates the film as a 15-year-old living in Fort Dupree, a dead-end South Dakota town. She has a strained relationship with her father, a sign painter, since her mother's death from pneumonia years earlier. Holly meets Kit Carruthers, a 25-year-old garbage collector, troubled greaser and Korean War veteran. He resembles James Dean, an actor whom Holly admires. After Kit charms Holly, he takes her virginity. As they become closer, his violent and anti-social tendencies are gradually revealed.
Holly's father disapproves of her relationship with Kit and kills her dog as punishment for spending time with him. Kit breaks into Holly's house and insists she run away with him. When her father protests and threatens to call the police, Kit shoots him dead. After Kit and Holly fake suicide by burning down the house, they head for the badlands of Montana. They build a tree house in a remote area and live there happily, fishing and stealing chickens for food. They flee after being found by three bounty hunters whom Kit shoots dead. They seek refuge with Kit's former co-worker Cato, but when he attempts to summon help, Kit shoots him too. Kit forces a young couple who arrive to visit Cato into a storm cellar. He shoots into the closed cellar door and leaves without checking to see if they are dead.
Kit and Holly are pursued across the Midwest by law enforcement. They stop at a rich man's mansion and take supplies, clothing and his Cadillac, sparing the lives of the man and his deaf housemaid. As they drive across Montana to Saskatchewan, the police find and chase them.
Holly grows tired of life on the lam. She refuses to keep running and turns herself in. Kit leads the police on a car chase but is soon caught. He charms the arresting officers and National Guard troops, tossing them his personal belongings as souvenirs of his crime spree. Holly reveals at the end that she received probation and married her defense attorney's son, and Kit was executed for his crimes.
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