In December 1957 Charles Starkweather killed a man, Robert Colvert. By the end of January 1958 he, and his girlfriend Caril Fugate had killed 11 people (and a couple of dogs). Their violent spree-killing road trip has left a quite unexpected legacy, one that sprung to mind whilst I sat watching Bobcat Goldthwaite’s latest film ‘god bless america’ (all in lower case because that’s how it is in the film and, well, I’m pretty sure it’s like that on purpose).
Goldthwaite (probably best known in this country for his turn as ‘Z’ in the Police Academy films) doesn’t pull any punches in his film. From the moment a baby is blown away with a shotgun inside the first two minutes the nihilism on display is unremitting. This isn’t a film where there is a light at the end of the tunnel, redemption or a new found appreciation for life – it’s cynical and pissed off and it doesn’t want to vote on another vacant TV ‘talent’ show parade of underachievers. In short, I recommend it. This is a work that has the courage of its convictions and they are rare beasts indeed. Check out the excellent trailer below…
Three films immediately leapt to mind as forbears of the Goldthwaite’s dark satire, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and True Romance. All of them are influenced by the Starkweather case where a sometimes violent and dangerous man takes a girl on a road trip where death is always nearby (True Romance doesn’t fit the bill quite as neatly, Clarence isn’t a cold blooded killer but he’ll take someone out if they cross him).
I first heard of the Starkweather case when it was mentioned prominently in Peter Jackson’s oft-forgot Ghost hunting film The Frighteners. ‘Got me a score of 12, that’s one more than Starkweather!’ Spits Jake Busey’s deranged spree-killer Johnny Charles Bartlett. So why is the Starkweather case such a evocative one, why do the movies return to the case to plough out fresh pairs of psychopathic killers?
The obvious reasons are that you have a romantic couple, with the added advantage (in Hollywood terms) of the man being an older, more established leading role and the girl being all young and pretty. Taking that a step further though the man has to embody all of the things a romantic hero has in any film but he can meld that matinee idol, Clark Gable, protector of his woman performance with that of a scene chewing psycho killer and a rebel without a cause anti-hero cool. It’s no surprise Martin Sheen and Christian Slater had more than a hint of James Dean about them in their films too. In a case of the art/life lines blurring to an event horizon, Starkweather himself had cultivated a widely reported James Dean obsession, styling his appearance on the ill-fated movie star.
For your female lead you need the heady mix of naivety, innocence and sexuality that sets producer’s mouths to froth. But, tellingly, your woman (girl?) has to be convincingly unhinged when the moment demands it. Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox outdoes the rest in this respect, getting closer to the spirit of Caril Fugate (who allegedly mutilated the genitalia of least one of the bodies of their victims).
Then you take this potent brew of romance, sex and brutal, remorseless murder and pour it out over a long stretch of land. The spree killers are not static beings, they’re on a road trip through the vacant landscapes of America picking off travellers as they go. These are road movies with cool cars, a stretch of blacktop and a landscape of danger and possibility.
Where Badlands was Terrence Malick’s poem of doomed teenage love and achingly beautiful photography, Tony Scott’s Tarantino scripted True Romance was a post-modern rock’n’roll blast with an astonishing cast and a softer, more hopeful side to our lovestruck couple. Oliver Stone’s Tarantino scripted Natural Born Killers is the black sheep of the flock – purposefully cross cutting from one sickening hued shot to another. Goldthwaite’s film picks pieces out of the legend to create something else, something suited to us now as an audience.
Starkweather won’t have known it at the time but he crafted a perfect template for a dark mid-West fable where a love is so twisted it doesn’t carve its name into trees but into bodies and doesn’t write in ink but in in blood, right across the heart of America.