Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts # 24: Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973)

Some people need a good, hard slap to wake them the fuck up and there would be no more deserving recipient than Holly Sargis (Spacek). She’s vapid, easily led and amoral, a freckled, baton-twirling fifteen-year-old girl who barely mutters a word of protest during the murder of her father. “Are you gonna be OK?” she asks as he lies on the floor of their home with two bullets in his gut. Where is the fear, the anger, the emotion at being in such close proximity to an extreme event? Eventually she manages a little cry, but it’s clear her underwhelming response is indicative of deep psychological flaws and a detachment from reality.

And who put those slugs in her dad’s belly? None other than a former garbage collector by the name of Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen). Disaffected and shiftless, he’s ten years older and full of directionless energy. Holly, however, loves this James Dean wannabe, too naive and bovine to grasp his sociopathic nature.

“I was surprised he took such a liking to me, especially when he could’ve had any other girl in town…” she narrates in a dreamy way, as if reading from a comic book. “He didn’t care what anyone else thought. I looked good to him and whatever I did was OK and if I didn’t have a lot to say, then that was OK, too… He wanted to die with me and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.”

The murder deepens their bond but also makes it impossible to stay in their boring South Dakota town. After torching the house, she briefly entertains the thought of fleeing from Kit but then starts fantasizing that they’re gonna hide out like spies. “I sensed that my destiny now lay with Kit for better or worse and it was better to spend a week with someone who loved me for what I was than years of loneliness.” That ‘destiny’ involves an odyssey across Montana that claims numerous innocent lives.

Based on the real-life 1958 slayings carried out by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Spacek and Sheen are low-key dynamite in director Terrence Malick’s lyrical masterpiece. As the bodies pile up, Spacek excels at capturing Holly’s listless, resigned nature, apparently accepting whatever feeble justifications her lover comes up with for his appalling behavior. None of her reactions are normal. “Is he upset?” she asks Kit after another man is gut shot. She’s not evil per se and never urges Kit to kill anyone, but it’s notable she’s also unable to suggest he stop the bloodshed. Ultimately, you sense that if she’d never met Kit she would have sleep-walked through an ordinary, forgettable life. 

Sometimes, though, the way things go is all down to the company you keep.



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2 responses to “Starring Debuts # 24: Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973)”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    Spacek was first seen, in full frontal nudity mind you, in 1972’s Prime Cut.
    ” …director Terrence Malick’s lyrical masterpiece…” Hold the phone! The Dylan Thomas of movie directors he ain’t. He’s a “master”? (he’s barely a journeyman) Hey, I saw Days of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line. The latter being a WWII pro Imperial Japan movie. It shared a title with James Jones’ novel but little else.

    A much better account of the Starkweather killing spree is to be seen the 1992 miniseries Murder in the Heartland. Tim Roth played Charlie. Modesty prevents me crediting the award winning sound effects editor (Susan Welsh) who received kudos for the electric chair scene at the end.

  2. John (Senile Citizen) Welsh Avatar
    John (Senile Citizen) Welsh

    Correction: The Thin Red Line (not Blue), a titled shared with Colin Campbell’s
    93rd Highlanders at Balaclava.

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