BADLANDS

On Jan. 21, 1958, Charles Starkweather entered the Nebraska home of girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate and shot and killed her father, mother, and 2-year-old sister. The two went on the lam, and Starkweather slew seven more over the course of eight days before surrendering to authorities. He was 19, Fugate was 14.

“Kit, I gotta question for you. You like people?” the police officer asks.
“They’re OK,” Kit responds with a shrug. 
“Then why’d you do it?” 
“I don’t know. I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess. Just not this big a one. Takes all kinds, though.”

Charles Starkweather was a real person, Kit Carruthers is a movie character, but he speaks for both. They are killers, sociopaths, and villains. Angry, young white men the American public continues to find endlessly fascinating.

Criminals have always made fascinating characters, but it is how director Terrence Malick depicted Starkweather’s killing spree that made Badlands revolutionary in 1973 and sadly still relevant in 2021.

Malick, an artist who could find infinity in a blade of grass, strips the story bare of background and any psychoanalysis that might explain why Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) are incapable of viewing murder as anything but romantic.

The answer is Holly, who isn’t just the movie’s stand-in for Fugate, but America’s as well. She is so hopelessly in love with the bad boy who has freed her from the father that she is blind to the atrocities right in front of her. Despite all the despicable things Kit does, Holly loves Kit in a naïve and innocent way, almost devoid of sexuality and emotion. They are two kids running around America’s heartland, playing house, and pretending to be grown-ups.

But they are not grown-ups. They are children, and Malick tips his hat to this fact in one of Holly’s many, slightly off-kilter voice-overs: “It sent a chill down my spine, and I thought, ‘Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody… This very moment… If my mom had never met my dad… If she had never died. And what’s the man I’ll marry gonna look like? What’s he doing right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me? Does it show on his face?’” 

Holly breezes right past, “Or killed anybody,” to musing about her past and future because she knows that what is happening now is wrong. She just isn’t ready to acknowledge that she is in love with a sociopath any more than America isn’t ready to admit that they are in love with angry young white men.

Why? Twenty-seven years after Badlands was released, Goodfellas echoed Holly’s sentiment with another female voice-over, this time highlighting the crucial piece of the puzzle that Holly is still too young to understand: “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”

Badlands is available to stream on HBO Max. A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 47, “Angry young white men.”