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

“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:

“Lo-ooove
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.”

Badlands doesn’t have an answer. From the moment Kit sees Holly for the first time, twirling her baton on a sunlit green lawn, he wants her, but in the context of Badlands, it’s hard to know what “wanting” means to him. Later, when he’s finally picked up by the police, he says, “I always wanted to be a criminal, just not this big a one.” His “wanting” comes from a restless, inchoate need for . . . it’s not clear. Kit has a sense of self-importance but no self-awareness. This missing piece keeps us going back to Badlands, its yawning emptiness, its full moons and thunderclouds, the expressionless faces of Kit and Holly, barreling across the plains, a pile of dead bodies behind them. In “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen imagines the story from Starkweather’s point of view, paraphrasing what the killer actually said after he was caught, “I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done / At least for a little while, sir, me and her, we had us some fun.” Staring at those words, the mind goes blank. In that blankness lies Badlands.

When Kit and Holly have sex for the first time, she’s disappointed. She can’t believe everyone makes such a fuss about what she just experienced. In other variations on this lovers-on-the-run premise, like Kalifornia, Wild at Heart, and Natural Born Killers, sex seems like it’s the point of murder, or at least a huge perk. Not here. Kit and Holly don’t have the sexually charged dynamic of the duo in Gun Crazy, or the cocky glamour of Bonnie and Clyde. They are not Godard’s “children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” like Michel and Patricia in Breathless (filmed a year after Starkweather’s murders), who spout theories filtered down through American movies. Kit and Holly, dancing in the forest, are not capable of theory. They are abstraction personified.

“Love Is Strange” was considered very racy in 1957. Seen in the larger context of anxiety about what teenagers were getting up to at night, it’s damn near explosive. The year before, Elvis had a smash hit with the extremely controversial “Baby Let’s Play House,” where he sang the praises of living in sin. In 1954, Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” rocked (literally) the foundations of propriety. Elvis covered the song in 1956, and was forced to change some of the more explicit lyrics, although nobody seemed to notice that comparing himself to “a one-eyed cat / peeping in a seafood store” was far dirtier than anything else in the song. Parents weren’t wrong to freak out about rock and roll. These songs did threaten the status quo, crack the pillars of society. These songs admitted what was going on culturally, emotionally, hormonally. Once you let that genie out of the bottle, it is not going to want to go back in. And it didn’t.

The origin story of “Love Is Strange” is complicated, involving a cast of characters who all claim total or partial ownership. A guitar riff by Jody Williams on Billy Stewart’s “Billy’s Blues” was the basis for the song, as well as for a number of others. Bo Diddley wrote the lyrics (giving his wife Ethel the song credit, due to a dispute with the record company), although Sylvia Vanterpool claims she wrote them. Diddley recorded it in 1956 (although it wasn’t released for decades), with Williams playing on the track. Then, a year after, Buddy Holly recorded it and released it under the title “Words of Love.” Others covered it later: Sonny and Cher, Peaches & Herb.

But Mickey & Sylvia’s version is the one everyone knows. It reached number one on the Billboard charts in 1957, and would have still been in rotation when Kit and Holly do their flat-affect dance in the woods. In their version, Mickey & Sylvia co-create the song—co-create their love affair—in all its intensity (“You’re in an awful fix”; “Once you get it, you never want to quit, no no”) as the song unfolds. When she growls, “Come here, Lover Boy!” it seems there is nothing else to do but obey, and happily.

It’s a short stroll from the sexual rebellion in 1957 to the political and cultural upheaval of 1968. But what is so fascinating about Kit and Holly dancing in the forest clearing to “Love Is Strange” is that the two of them are so clearly cut off from any cultural trend, from their generation, from anything connecting them to their moment in time, from time in general. 

James Dean in his red leather jacket embodied the angst and isolation of the first generation to come of age post–atomic bomb. Dean’s rebellion may not have had a cause, but it had a source, and teenagers recognized it. Kit and Holly, on the other hand, make the rebellion of 1950s teenagers—having drag races and rumbles, getting each other pregnant at the drive-in—look pedestrian. Those kids, with parents to go home to, were tame and milk-fed by comparison. They would find their way back to the American mainstream. Kit and Holly won’t. They were never a part of it to begin with.

“Love Is Strange” has had a life in movies beyond Malick’s film. It’s probably most associated with Dirty Dancing, where Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze lip-sync the whole song, crawling around on the dance floor in an ecstasy of playful sexual energy. It shows up in Casino, too, when Robert De Niro first sees Sharon Stone whooping it up at the craps table. The whole world stops when he sees her, and the song tells us his sudden and swift need for her. In these later films, the song fits the mood of the scene, but in Badlands, something’s way off. The pieces don’t fit together. Earlier, Holly’s father (Warren Oates) is seen painting a billboard in the middle of an empty field. A panel is missing, through which you can see the blue sky beyond. It’s an optical illusion: a hole has fallen out of the world. It is in that hole, in a free-fall through the empty blue, that Kit and Holly dance.

Later in the film, Malick gives us a contrasting musical selection. The two have flown across South Dakota, with law enforcement in pursuit. At one point, in the dead of night, they stop the car and dance again, circling in the glow of the headlights to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell,” drifting out of the radio:

“We planned together to dream forever
The dream has ended, for true love died.”

In “Love Is Strange,” love is a spark, two people needing a “fix” and knowing how to go about getting it. “A Blossom Fell” is another story entirely. The song is an elegy to a love affair that is over. Everything is over for Kit and Holly, too, and they know it. The badlands will be the end of the road for them. Unlike their dissociated stroll around each other in “Love Is Strange,” here they hold each other, but formally, stiffly, like they’re kids at a junior high school dance. They don’t cling. Passion isn’t in them. It never was. Pleasure is a “faraway planet,” too.

Holly, twirling her baton, was not aware of how bored she was until Kit came along. Kit allows her to slip through a crack, through the hole in the billboard of her world. It’s hard not to relate to this. Earlier, in voice-over, Holly shares the story of her fish dying, saying, “I didn’t mind telling Kit about this, ‘cuz strange things happened in his life, too, and some of the stuff he did was strange.”

Like love is strange.