With the depression and prohibition, new avenues for the outlaw opened up. The outlaw from the old West changed into a gangster, and the likes of Al Capone and John Dillinger took over again inspiring countless films. The outlaw figure was usually a lone man, until Bonnie and Clyde entered public consciousness. There was a certain appeal to a couple willing to set themselves against the whole world. Despite a lot of killing of innocents, their image captivated the public and still does today. It's easy to have a soft spot for the romantic robbers, especially when many at the time felt the government had completely let them down. We're quick to distance ourselves from their habit of murdering people, but that isn't the whole story. Like Capone or Dillinger, or the Jesse James, they were working at something else, the killing was just a side effect.
The serial killer is another figure entirely and not celebrated one in the same way, although popular culture has as much fascination with them. While we can somewhat rally behind an outlaw championing our independence, few of us would willingly celebrate someone who kills for no reason other than some compulsion. They champion nothing, only provide us with an example of extreme human behavior. We see them and wonder how they got that way. Was it how they were raised, mental illness, a traumatic incident that caused them to snap? We don't know, and the most terrifying aspect about them is that they look just like us until they're caught and exposed. We're shocked but we can't look away. They achieve a celebrity of a different sort and every serial killer with a catchy nickname has a movie out about their story.
The case of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate is a kind of intersection of these different types. With a name that seems like blatant foreshadowing, Starkweather seemed suited to the sparse and unforgiving environment that hosted his life. We know that Starkweather was bullied by his classmates due to a birth defect affecting one of his legs as well as a speech impediment. Starkweather began building himself up in gym class in order to turn the bullying tables around. Starkweather tried to reinvent himself, imitating James Dean's look after seeing "Rebel Without a Cause" He dropped out of high school and had a hard time holding a job. His father kicked him out of the house and he found work as a garbageman. His life changed profoundly one day, when an altercation with a gas station attendant ending with Starkweather shooting the man dead. Once he'd crossed that moral line he continued to follow where it led, killing the parents and baby sister of his underage girlfriend, Caril. He then took her along with him on a reckless killing spree through Nebraska and Wyoming until the cops caught up to him. Initially, Starkweather claimed that Caril hadn't killed anyone, although he changed his mind later, claiming she was more bloodthirsty than him. He was eventually executed and Caril served a long prison sentence for her role in the killings.
Terrence Malick chose Starkweather and Fugate as the inspiration for his first film, changing their names to Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) perhaps to avoid lawsuits from Caril Fugate who was still alive and serving time. How true he was to the story is difficult to say, since only Starkweather and Fugate knew many of the details, but it's clear that Malick has his own meditation in mind, using the Starkweather story as a springboard for his own ideas. We don't witness Kit and Holly hanging out in Holly's house after stowing the bodies of her family close by. Instead we see Kit facing down Holly's controlling sign painter father (Warren Oates) who wants to keep Kit from his daughter (demonstrated by a scene in which her father shoots her dog as punishment for hanging out with Kit.) Kit seems as surprised as anyone when the gun goes off, even though he brought the gun and pulled the trigger.
Holly comes across as an innocent, narrating over the events as if remembering a story she's fond of telling. She seems to know this is a temporary story, which has no happily ever after. She's decided, however, to go along with Kit, come what may. They burn down her father's house and hit the road. Their lack of knowledge about the world informs their road trip and for a brief while they live out a part of a fairy tale, living in a tree house in the woods and living off the land and whatever live stock they can get their hands on. It doesn't last long though as there's a bounty out on them and they're discovered by a man who returns with armed friends who end up as more murders on Kit's belt. Kit reasons that killing these men was fine since they were bounty hunters and not lawmen, who would only be doing their job.
He soon puts less effort into justifying his actions, killing an old friend and co worker and then possibly killing a young couple who came to visit him. Kit doesn't seem to celebrate murder, he simply gives it no more thought than where they're going to sleep that night. Murder is very simply something Kit has realized he can do and he's lost any incentive to refrain from it. Kit's lack of anger and of any compassion suggest a young child playing cowboys and Indians. We see him many times stopping to take a look at dead animals as if curious, at what makes them stop moving, but his human victims don't even draw that interest.
He leaves Holly behind as the law starts closing in and once caught, he makes small talk with the officers arresting him as if they're just playing the game too. He even compliments them, saying they acted like heroes bringing him in. In the film, Holly tells us that she was sentenced to probation and marries a lawyer who defended her while Kit was sentenced to the electric chair and executed. In reality, she served seventeen years, but that divergence is Malick's choice, and it makes Holly a more interesting storyteller.
"Badlands" is a remarkable work, particularly for a first film and it's no surprise that Malick went on to an acclaimed film career. It's a beautifully shot vision of the open west, that makes it easy to understand how someone could feel small against the environment. Malick doesn't gloss over the killing but doesn't dwell in the details either, as if tempering the act of murder with the way Kit sees it, one moment to happen and then it's forgotten. Holly presents the killing very matter of factly, her narration giving the feeling of a school report on what she did for the summer. Any reservations she has don't stop her from going along for the ride. It's as if the morality of their actions never occur to them at the time. To Holly, living with Kit is simply an extension of playing house although a grotesque version perhaps. Kit is like a dog who suddenly discovers he likes to bite. It doesn't even seem to matter that he gets caught, as if this was the only way he could think of to be visible in the great wide open spaces. With all the time and effort he puts in to come off like James Dean, at least he can finally get some attention. The press and the cops are happy to oblige him.
One of the officers even tells him he doesn't need to apologize, since his actions didn't bother him personally. None of it is personal, except to those who are dead. There are only so many things you can do in a lifetime, as Holly points out with her ruined fairy tale narration: "One day, while taking a look at some vistas in Dad's stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. 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? For days afterwards I lived in dread. Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, and this never happened."
She tells the story the only way she can, after the fact, and it's still a kind of fairy tale because she didn't have the gun, she just went along because Kit was handsome and interesting. He listened to her sometimes and they thought they loved each other. His actions may have even made some sense, as her own father wasn't terribly given to kindness, shooting her dog as a punishment for being with Kit. We can sense that Kit himself has endured some cruelty but that isn't the focus of the story. He doesn't complain much and or contemplate aloud to give away his motivations. We can only guess based on what he does. Kit's not surprised at the prospect of his own bad end. As he tells a deputy, "I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess. Just not this big a one. Takes all kinds, though." It's hard to argue with that. As much as we like to find explanations to explain away such people and their actions, sometimes there isn't a good one, except to say that as a result of the unshared circumstances of his life, he's just that kind. It's hard to live with the idea that Starkweather is not a monster, just a confused kid with no compassion or concern for consequences, but that's what Malick shows us in "Badlands" and it's a lot to think about.