How to Shoot a Serial Killer
With Badlands, Terrence Malick showed how to humanize killers without romanticizing them.
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a killer and his young girlfriend in Badlands, 1973.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Many moralists think violence should simply be swept away from American cinema because our citizens can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. However, in a country as violent as the United States, it’s natural that violent art is going to be produced in large quantities. Examining Terrence Malick’s 1973 masterpiece Badlands at a time when gun violence has once again become a topic of heated discussion, now that Criterion has issued a sparkling new edition, enables one to see its superiority to the wave of serial-killer chic that swept American culture in the ’90s and is still with us today. If a portion of American cinema is going to remain devoted to violence, it could learn a lot by revisiting Malick’s thoughtfulness.
Badlands is told in the first person, through the eyes of an unreliable narrator: 15-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek). In voice-over she tells us that her older boyfriend, the serial killer Kit (Martin Sheen), praises her for acting like an adult, but it’s hard to imagine a teenager more childish. When Kit commits murders and the couple goes on the lam through South Dakota and the Great Plains, she hovers passively on the sidelines. While she never participates in Kit’s crimes, she never raises any objection to them either. Malick’s writing of Holly’s voice-over is marvelous: He imagines a voice steeped in gossip magazines and romance novels and creates a style of purple prose to suit her. Kit is every bit as much a creature of pop culture. In an early scene, he looks like a young rebel in the mold of James Dean and Marlon Brando, clad in a white T-shirt and jeans with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Inevitably, a cop points out the resemblance between him and Dean.
Malick’s film executes a tricky balancing act: It depicts murderers in love without romanticizing their actions. It comes closest to crossing that line in the beautiful section depicting their idyll in a tree house. (Last year, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom even drew inspiration from this part of the film for its romantic portrait of tween runaways.) But even in that section they come off looking rather silly: Holly tries to make herself up like a movie star but falls well short of Hollywood glamour, and when they attempt a forest boogie, their movements are stiff and self-conscious. If Holly remains somewhat sympathetic, Kit comes off as a blowhard at best. He may fancy himself a rebel and dress the part, but he’s obviously overestimated his own intelligence and tends to spew platitudes. After killing Holly’s father, he shoots two bounty hunters in the back and goes on to shoot a friend for no apparent reason.
The film is based on the story of real-life serial killer Charles Starkweather—who, just like Kit, styled himself after Dean—and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The short TV documentary about Starkweather included as a bonus feature on the Criterion disc is pretty disposable, but it underscores how Badlands actually sanitized Starkweather somewhat in fictionalizing him; unlike Kit, the real murderer raped a woman and killed a 2-year-old. While Badlands doesn’t go that far, it consistently portrays Kit as an evil creep and a poser. His violent actions are never dwelled upon or sensationalized, but the film doesn’t shy away from depicting them explicitly.
The film fits into a long line of American films about outlaw couples on the run, which probably began with Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948). Its most immediate precursor is Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—a film that also undercuts its romance, rendering its dashing male hero impotent. But if Badlands was inspired in part by Bonnie and Clyde, its somber tone couldn’t be further from that film’s mix of humor and highly stylized gore.
That gore was featured in force in the ’90s, when serial killers seemed to be everywhere in American cinema, most notably in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Seven (1995), and, worst of all, Natural Born Killers (1994). Lifting the romance angle from Badlands, Oliver Stone’s 1994 film paid homage to its predecessor, but Stone must have misunderstood its lessons. Kit was an anti-hero, if not an outright villain, but Natural Born Killers turns its serial killers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) into folk heroes. Although Stone makes fun of teenagers and the media for extolling the coolness of Mickey and Mallory, his film amounts to an elaborate version of the same thing. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Charles Manson T-shirt.
The Silence of the Lambs may have been a bit more subtle, but its portrayal of Hannibal Lecter had the same effect. When it was released, few people, apart from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, noted with any alarm that it turned a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, into a kind of charismatic guru. Sure, he might dine on your liver, the film told us, but he’d do it with wit and sophistication, while revealing to you the secrets of your soul. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his winning portrayal, and the movie was a blockbuster, the fourth biggest film at the box office that year.
Given the success and appeal of the character, it was perhaps inevitable that, in the sequel-crazy 2000s, Lecter would become the focus of one of one of the decade’s biggest franchises. The first sequel, Hannibal (2001), made it even safer to identify with Lecter, by making his adversary a pedophile—who’s going to root for a child molester?—and it became an even bigger hit than Lambs. Lecter continued to serve as the main attraction in two more sequels, Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal Rising (2007)—just look at whose face dominates the posters. Coming this spring, the murderer will get his own TV series, Hannibal, premiering on NBC.
Just as happened in the mass media in Natural Born Killers, the serial killers had become the stars of the movies. Starting in 2004, the Saw series followed a similar pattern, treating its villain, Jigsaw, as another sort of guru. By torturing his victims, the films explain, Jigsaw shows people who’ve wasted their lives the error of their ways. Of course, Jigsaw had precedents in slasher cinema—Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers—but none of them were treated as kindly as the Saw movies depicted Jigsaw. From the first film, Jigsaw was dying of cancer, so his time in the series was limited, but when he vanished from it, the films’ box office appeal diminished.
Thankfully, a few films have emerged to give the serial killer plot a smarter twist. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2005) are both based on real-life investigations of serial killers. Crucially, both cases remain unsolved, leaving no figure to glorify. The films instead track the web of psychic damage and obsession created by the murders. In this way Memories of Murder and Zodiac hold a mirror up to a culture fascinated by serial killers and show its ultimate emptiness, all without the self-righteous finger-pointing of a film like Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games (remade in the United States a decade later), which was inspired by the Austrian director’s disgust with Natural Born Killers.
If Badlands encourages us to identify with any of its characters at all (and I’m not sure that it does), it places us in an unusual perspective: that of a killer’s lover, implicated in his crimes but not directly participating in them. In this way, the film humanizes both the killers and victims. If directors and writers of violent cinema walk away from it with one point to incorporate into their own films, that’s the best one. The difficulty of humanizing killers without romanticizing them may present a challenging problem, but Malick showed it’s not impossible to solve.
Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes for the Village Voice, Gay City News, Metro, Nashville Scene, the Atlantic, Studio Daily, and other publications.