The Hot-Blooded Love Cry at the Cold Heart of Badlands

The Hot-Blooded Love Cry at the Cold Heart of <em>Badlands</em>

“The very first time I saw a picture of [Charles Starkweather], I knew I was looking at the future. His eyes were a double zero. There was just nothing there. He was like an outrider of what America might become.”

Stephen King

The killer and his girlfriend, on the run from the law, hide in the forest, underneath a hastily built treehouse. She sits in the grass, experimenting with makeup, jabbing eyeliner on her eyelids. They dance. She’s barefoot, in a red and white dress. He’s in a T-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Mickey & Sylvia’s 1956 hit song “Love Is Strange” surges into the air with its swooning harmonies:

Love is strange
Lots of pe-eeeople
Take it for a game . . .”

By this point in Badlands, we’ve seen what the man, Kit (Martin Sheen), is capable of. He has killed the father of his girlfriend, Holly (Sissy Spacek), in cold blood, as she stood by watching. She packs her bag afterward, like an automaton. We think the ties that bind us to our lives have substance, carry weight, but she slips out of the bonds of her life as easily as walking through air. Her voice-over is unsettlingly deadpan: “The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return.” When they dance, she remains far away, her arms crooked at the elbows, wrists dangling down, her face detached. He keeps his body close to hers, but they don’t touch or look at each other. It’s a disjointed version of “the stroll,” one of the hot dances of the era. In the stroll, boys and girls face each other in two separate lines, moving sideways across the dance floor. Jitterbugging involves lots of touching, grabbing, hand-holding, physical involvement. But you do the stroll alone. This suits Kit and Holly just fine.

Their feelings run the opposite of hot, conflicting with the lyrics of “Love Is Strange,” a duet of love, desire, and demands. Cooing turns into a growl of need, before transforming back into cooing, wheedling, role-playing. The singers, Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanterpool, tease each other, particularly in the spoken-word section: “Sylvia!” “Yes, Mickey.” “How do you call your Lover Boy?” “Come here, Lover Boy!” “And if he doesn’t answer?” “Oh, Lover Boy!” It’s impossible to imagine Kit or Holly saying those words.

Badlands, Terrence Malick’s 1973 feature debut, is loosely based on the 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather, who wreaked havoc across Nebraska and Wyoming with his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in tow. Starkweather murdered eleven people (including Fugate’s father, stepmother, and two-year-old stepsister). Whether or not Fugate was a willing participant or a kidnap victim would be a major issue in her trial. Starkweather was executed in 1959, and Fugate was sentenced to life in prison and served seventeen years. She is still alive.

The killings dominated national news (“TERROR TRAIL,” screamed one headline), and—as is often the case with high-profile violent crimes—seemed to tell “us” something about “how we live now.” The Starkweather spree happened in an era of panic about so-called “juvenile delinquency,” a time when rebellious figures like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley were teenage idols, suggesting that authority figures were losing their grip. Starkweather’s spree was just one year before the Clutter family was murdered in their home in Kansas, another case that shocked the nation (immortalized by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood). Starkweather and Fugate tapped into something uneasy in the culture, a jittery feeling that something had gone very wrong out there. These two murderous kids, snapping gum and smoking cigarettes as they were brought into the courthouse, showed no remorse. What void in American life had created them? 

“Parents weren’t wrong to freak out about rock and roll. These songs did threaten the status quo, crack the pillars of society.”

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