JIM SHEPARD

BADLANDS AND THE “INNOCENCE” OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE

FEATURING MARTIN SHEEN AS DONALD RUMSFELD, AND A VOICE-OVER BY OUR LACONIC COMPLICITY.

DISCUSSED: Terrence Malick, Sick Cows, Natural Born Killers, John Wayne, Can’t Explain vs. Won’t Explain, Killing Sprees, Toasters, Nancy Drew, the U.N., Warren Beatty, Collies, Big Sky, The Swiss Family Robinson, Guilt.

laconic: a. Short, pithy, curt, epigrammatic, terse.
taciturn: a. Habitually silent; not apt to talk.
sociopathic: a. From the noun: a psychopathic personality whose behavior is aggressively antisocial.

A few moments after it opens, Badlands locates its hero, Kit—Martin Sheen, back before he became our Wednesday night president—standing over a dead dog, and not reacting the way we would hope. His opening lines have to be some of the most idiosyncratic any hero’s ever uttered in a Hollywood movie. He says to a fellow garbageman, “Give you a dollar to eat that collie.” He sounds serious. And it’s a measure of the kind of world we’re in that the garbageman claims it would take more than a dollar. And the dog isn’t a collie, anyway.

Terrence Malick doesn’t make many movies. He’s only made three in the last thirty years. Mostly because Badlands, which he wrote, produced, and directed in 1973, as his first, was one of them, he’s a cult figure.

The story is based on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree in the Midwest in the late Fifties. Most of the movie’s details are taken from that dismal saga of two sociopathic dimwits—Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate—who killed eleven people for no good reason before being caught. And Badlands wants to suggest that there was something peculiarly American about their dimwittedness and the particularly lethal forms it took. Badlands was the first movie to really taxonomize a particularly American species, a species which right about now could use some taxonomizing: the sentimental sociopath.

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Look for the rest of this piece in Jim Shepard’s essay collection Heroes in Disguise, forthcoming from Believer Books.

Jim Shepard has a new novel and a collection of stories coming out with Knopf next year.

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