Charles Starkweather, the real-life basis for such serial-killer films as Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” and Tony Scott’s “True Romance”, is finally having his story told with a minimum of Hollywood interference (i.e., no stars, no flashy effects) and with an emphasis on the actual events and facts of the gruesome story. While this direct approach may make for a more historically accurate telling of Starkweather’s tale, it unfortunately doesn’t translate to a very engaging or entertaining piece of film.
Charlie Starkweather (Brent Taylor) and his girlfriend Caril-Ann Fugate (Shannon Lucio) kicked off their killing spree (or, rather, his killing spree, as she kind of just rode along and whined a lot) in Nebraska in 1956, killing 11 people in 3 months. In this version of the story, Charlie was visited at an early age by a sort of phantom “mentor” who goaded him into killing by insisting that it was in his nature to do so. After eluding the police for a number of weeks following the slaughter of Caril-Ann’s family and a handful of others, Charlie and Caril-Ann were finally taken into custody on a rural highway as they tried to escape to California, and Charlie was executed shortly thereafter. Caril was imprisoned for 20 or so years, and is apparently still alive somewhere, using an assumed name.
Pretty cut-and-dry. And unfortunately, this telling of the tale doesn’t add much to it: the events are laid out end-to-end, with very little conflict or resistance to make things interesting or any narrative to drive the story. We don’t particularly care for Charlie and Caril-Ann, and we don’t really know where they’re going (nor do they). So seeing them wander around killing everyone they come across, while occasionally unpleasant, is really neither disturbing nor interesting. Flourishes like Charlie’s hinted-at desires to be the next James Dean and the accompanying imagery (a dream-sequence newsreel is a nice break from the earnestly-composed, cleanly-lit shots that make up most of the film) are certainly the most interesting parts of the film, and one wonders what the movie might have been had the filmmakers gotten more caught up in the inherent kinetic chaos of the story. After all, the most that a filmmaker can hope to contribute to real-life events is to contextualize those events and make them relevant to a new audience; here we see little contextualization or relevance, but rather a parade of classic picture-cars and stilted dialogue scenes.
The biggest single issue I had with Starkweather was the device of Charlie’s imaginary “mentor”, which allows for a lot of would-be voiceovers to be played out on-screen between two characters (although it’s no more interesting that way) and a few “Three’s Company”-style misunderstandings when Caril-Ann overhears Charlie talking to his imaginary friend. Again, this could easily have been used as a source of conflict that would help to drive the story, but here it’s brought up and disposed of as needed and is ultimately of little relevance. The mentor is voiced by Lance Henrickson, whom the filmmakers apparently couldn’t get on-set — his “body double” is a Tim McGraw-looking “dark cowboy” type whose face is conveniently obscured every time he’s on-screen, a none-too-subtle and ultimately distracting device.
There were a few highlights to the film, including the performance of Lucio as Caril-Ann, the shifty, Lolita-like muse to Charlie’s murderous rampage. Looking not unlike Dominique Swain (oddly), Lucio’s performance is a dead-on mix of stupid innocence and calculated wile that plays beautifully. You’re never quite sure which direction this girl is going to go, which is more than can be said of her beau, whose tortured pretty-boy routine is fairly flat (again, Taylor is forced to play out most of his inner turmoil against a faceless cowboy, so you can’t really blame the actor entirely). Some of the photography is nice in a wistful, wide-open-spaces sort of way, and some of the color work done on the skies was somewhat striking (again, a hint of what might have happened had the content not been treated with such odd reverence).
In all, I found Starkweather to be a technically competent and earnestly-made missed opportunity, lacking the very sort of passion or recklessness that made Charlie and Caril-Ann the infamous figures they are today. These were people who acted in the moment, and to make a contemplative, somber film about them just doesn’t make for a very compelling watch. To take away the “thrill” of the original thrill-killers is as much a disservice to them as it is to the audience, and leaves us with a sadly unengaging, amber-tinted history lesson.