Over the course of two months straddling 1957 and 1958, Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old garbage collector, brought Caril Ann Fugate, his 14-year-old girlfriend, along on a killing spree that started in Lincoln, Nebraska and ended 10 bodies later outside Douglas, Wyoming. The murders attracted tremendous media coverage and a huge manhunt at the time, and now seem like another chapter in an ongoing tome about the loss of American innocence. Between the killings in the Heartland—that fabled place untouched by the corruption and violence of the cities—and Starkweather’s roguish, pulse-quickening good looks, the country had both its first celebrity murder case and a bracing reminder that nobody anywhere is truly safe. Starkweather was executed via electric chair in 1959, but his ghost lives on.
Based loosely on the Starkweather-Fugate rampage, Terrence Malick’s masterful 1973 debut feature, Badlands, extracts only what it needs from the case, and it’s telling what the film leaves behind. Some of the tabloid shock of the murders—like Starkweather killing Fugate’s 2-year-old sister—have been elided, as has the media circus and manhunt that swelled up around them. What remains is the haunting mythology, the legend of Starkweather and Fugate more than the reality of them: The James Dean lookalike with “bad boy” charisma, the naïve innocent drawn in by his dangerous aura, the peaceful expanses of the Great Plains punctuated by terrible bursts of violence. Working in that most lurid of genres, the “true crime” yarn, Malick discovered the delicate contrast of beauty and savagery that would later inform his grander visions of the Pacific theater in WWII (The Thin Red Line) and the founding of America (The New World).
Though the actor was 31 at the time, Malick’s casting of Martin Sheen as his Starkweather type plays better than it would have with a younger actor, because it more clearly emphasizes the age gap between his trim, handsome yet distant laborer and the impressionable teenage girl he seduces. While working his garbage-collecting route in a quiet South Dakota town, Sheen spots Sissy Spacek, a 15-year-old redhead, twirling a baton in the front yard of a house she shares with her widower father (Warren Oates). The two start seeing each other in secret, but when Oates finds out about it, he forbids Spacek from seeing Sheen and rebuffs Sheen’s halfhearted attempts to placate him. This leads to the first of many murders as the lovers zigzag around Middle America, hiding out in their own forest idyll before the authorities have them gunning it across the open plains.
In one of the greatest-ever uses of voiceover narration, the world of Badlands is revealed from Spacek’s perspective, which at times is as curious and innocent as a child experiencing new wonders (the gas refineries of Missoula, the city lights of Cheyenne) and is at others chilling in its moral passivity. She becomes a wistful spectator to Sheen’s bloody production, resigned to the fact that their adventures will end soon and badly, and left to dream about what might have happened if she and her father never moved to South Dakota or if there’s another man out there who would have been right for her.
The Starkweather-Fugate murders have an element of generational menace to them, as if they represented an extreme manifestation of youth gone awry. But Malick isn’t the sort to take those types at face value: Spacek’s heroine is more canvas than paint, guilty only of allowing her girlish infatuation get the better of her unformed sense of right and wrong. Her terror and lust keep her held in Sheen’s orbit, but she’s no more corrupt or malicious than the bystanders unfortunate enough to stand in their path of destruction. In just his first film, Malick displays the unique sensitivity to his character’s inner life—to say nothing of the magnificent outer life of the landscape around her—that has made him a singular filmmaker. His visual poetry has the effect of extracting the pulp while heightening the horror.
Key features: Malick, as ever, did not make himself available for interviews, but the disc still includes a 45-minute doc with Sheen, Spacek, and art director Jack Fisk, a 10-minute interview with the great producer Edward Pressman (who was just getting started here), a 1993 American Justice episode on Starkweather and Fugate, and a fine essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.