Amid senseless violence, we can sometimes find simple truths where we least expect them, hovering at the margins of the chaos.
No, this is not the latest wave of pro-surge Pentagon propaganda. It's Terrence Malick's cinematic world, a landscape where tragedy and subtle poignancies are woven into a meditative vision that first manifested in Badlands, the director's 1973 directorial debut. The film, starring a wiry young Martin Sheen and an even younger Sissy Spacek as his jailbait girlfriend, retells the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, once the most famous outlaws in the West.
In the winter of 1957-58 the couple terrorized the Great Plains, killing 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming including Fugate's mother, stepfather and two-year old sister Betty Jean, who Starkweather clubbed to death. It remains unknown how active Fugate was in the violence, but for her complicity she was found guilty and served 18 years in prison before being released on parole.
He was a certified crazy, but Starkweather was no pure original. Roughly 25 years after Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker wrote the original script for outlaw couples, Starkweather lived the sequel. He also modeled himself, down to the denim and pocket comb, after James Dean, who's Rebel Without a Cause had just recently set the squares all aquiver. The prototypical Sheen (rhymes with Dean) could have been cast for his rebellious hair alone, but in Badlands, he gets the Podunk "Rebel Without a Clue" just right.
From the first gunshots, the raving-mad Starkweather and his girl (Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis in the film) are fugitives. They set the scene of the crime ablaze and dive off the grid into a forested hideaway, a tree house complex worthy of Ewoks.
As the aloof narrator, Spacek's Holly is also a portrait in inexplicable behavior. Her detachment from the crimes is rationalized by unconditional loyalty: "I have to stick by Kit," she incants. And so the cycle goes, from state to state and victim to victim.
While not typical American history fare, the Starkweather-Fugate murders are well etched into pop culture. Several songs (Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire), books ("Starkweather" is a recurring Steven King character) and band names resurrect the ghosts of these criminal celebrities.
Given the trigger-happy, tainted-love flavor of their affair, the story is a no-brainer for filmmakers. And so the outlaw-couple-killing-spree-thriller has become a fruitful, if predictable genre, especially drawing directors with a yen for auteurist flourishes. David Lynch used the couple as a loose template for his Wild at Heart and in 1993, director Dominic Sena's Kalifornia was the first of two mid-90s flicks to star the creepily unbalanced Juliette Lewis as a creepily unbalanced violence fetishist. A year later, she showed up again in Natural Born Killers, a Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone treatment.
In Stone's criminal-cult satire, we are made to question the national psyche that falls in love with cold-blooded psychopaths and a media that facilitates the affair. While an easy stone to throw, Natural Born Killers was a glass-housed satire. People stormed the box office for the blood and adrenaline, the precise reasons Stone said they shouldn't.
This August marked the fortieth anniversary of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, a seminal work of Hollywood violence. While shocking at the time, the film opened doors for ever more gratuitous and decadent bloodletting. In the ensuing decades, countless movies have used blood, guts and torture as both social commentary and, increasingly, a bone tossed to bloodthirsty audiences.
In his August 12 New York Times essay, film critic A.O. Scott wrote at length on the impact of watching Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway "twitch and writhe amid a storm of gunfire." Scott explores the extent to which, on one hand, groundbreaking horror cleared the way for more daring overtures of violence in art, while, on the other, it eventually deadened our senses to the specter of tragedy.
Curiously, Scott makes no mention of Badlands. While a possible oversight on Scott's part, his omission may have been due to the singularity of Malick's approach. Unclassifiable, Malick neither glorified nor condemned Starkweather's cruelty. Instead, Badlands challenges us with banality. As one death begets another, the outlaw run seems all the more mundane. Unreflective insanity becomes the norm and, like Holly, we grow numb to the madman's joyride, finding solace instead in the wide-open spaces of the American West.