Sissy Spacek in Badlands: An Analysis


Roger Ebert writes in his review of Terrence Malick’s great film Badlands:

She claimed she was kidnapped and forced to go along with Starkweather. When they first were captured, he asked the deputies to leave her alone: “She didn’t do nothing.” Later, at his trial, he claimed she was the most trigger-happy person he ever knew, and was responsible for some of the killings. It is a case that is still not closed, although “Badlands” sees her as a child of vast simplicity who went along at first because she was flattered that he liked her: “I wasn’t popular at school on account of having no personality and not being pretty.”

Badlands is narrated by Holly, but we don’t get much information from her. It’s flat. Tired-out. There is no introspection in her. She appears to just be passively reacting to events. The accepted “narrative” of these two spree-killers is that Kit (played by Martin Sheen) was the real loose cannon, and she was just along for the ride because she loved him. Are they in the grand tradition of criminal pairings (like I talked about here)? Or are they something totally different? Kit is painted as the truly bad guy (albeit damaged and blunted by life), but what about her? What is it like to be her? How does she react to things? What is HER damage? Sissy Spacek (and Malick) work subversively here, leaving most of the script uneloquent on her reasoning, which makes her a pretty frightening character. I WANT to see her as “kidnapped”, almost, but that’s not the case. She participates, even in her ultimate passivity. Doing nothing is also participation, when you are on a killing spree. But her motives remain mysterious. You don’t see evidence of a grand passion (the way you do in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, or even Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers – where it is obviously the alchemy of the two personalities that jumpstarts them) – you don’t see her operating under any kind of NORMAL or recognizable motivation: love, yearning for a home, a partner – even flat-out boredom – none of those things seem to occur to this freckled flat-eyed teenager. In a way, it is Sissy Spacek’s most creepy performance.

I just finished reading Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare, the leading expert in psychopaths in, perhaps, the world. His name comes up all the time if you research psychopaths, which, uhm, I do. His book is fantastic, by the way, highly recommended – and certainly makes me think of two psychopaths I have known. An interesting point that Hare makes, repeatedly, is the controversy around the term “psycho” and what it has come to mean in our culture, and why the preferred term (at least legalistically) is usually “sociopath” – because “psycho” has connotations of crazy, off-the-wall, going NUTS, and not being in control of your faculties. Psychopaths are always in control. They are not “insane”, as “psycho” would have you think.

It’s a really good book, with many fascinating case studies (of “successful” psychopaths – meaning those who have never broken the law, a rare breed – because they fly under the radar, and yet they still destroy lives – and then the more garden-variety “unsuccessful” versions, filling up the prison population) – and Hare resists “diagnosing” people that he doesn’t know. People come to him all the time with “is so and so a psychopath”, and he can’t say, without having studied the individual himself. Hannibal Lecter comes up a lot, as the modern-day version of what people think a “psychopath” is. He cautions against that limited interpretation, because you may miss what is going on right in front of you, because the person doesn’t SEEM like a “psycho”. One of the defining characteristics of a psychopath is “charm”. It may be glib or superficial, but it can certainly work upon you, if you do not pick up on the other signals. Many of them are highly skilled in diffusing suspicion. Their emotions are shallow, they do not understand things such as love or empathy. Hare quotes psychologists J.H. Johns and H.C. Quay, who wrote famously that psychopaths “know the words but not the music”.

Truman Capote in In Cold Blood creates one of the most indelible portraits of a psychopath that I can think of – not in the delusional damaged Perry Smith, who may seem more openly “insane”, with his visions of a great avenging bird, and his fantasies of scuba-diving for sunken treasure – he seems “nuts” – but, it is really Dick Hickock who is the textbook “psychopath”. Cold, glib (“Matt, Matt, Matt, you’re glib…”), deceitful, and charming as hell. Capote felt it when he was in his presence.

Many people who routinely work with people who score high on Hare’s psychopath checklist report feeling a strange skin-crawling sensation when in the presence of these people. I have no statistics to back this up, but I would warrant a guess that that skin-crawling feeling (reported by multiple people, remember) has some evolutionary purpose. Something deep and survival-based. The feeling Rikki-Tikki-Tavi got when he made eye contact with the cobra, perhaps. Get away from this creature. Either kill it, or RUN.

Gavin de Becker talks about the “gift of fear”. Fear like that tells us when something is wrong. Listen. It is a gift from millions of years of evolution. Take that, Kirk Cameron.

One of the best fictional portraits of a psychopath in the history of literature is Steinbeck’s Cathy (even just the name gives me the creeps) in East of Eden. I was surprised that Hare did not reference it in his book, since he does use multiple examples from literature and film. Steinbeck, in his Biblical allegory, is certainly making a connection between psychopaths and the Devil. Cathy has the Devil in her. She is cool, calculated, gorgeous (the perfect smokescreen), and lies. Not just to get out of things. But she lies because she can. She lies indiscriminately (one of the defining characteristics of a psychopath). They lie so often that those listening to them, operating from their own assumptions of sanity, and how normal people behave, sometimes get caught up in it. We are not used to dealing with such creatures (thank God). They have a tendency to fool everyone: parole officers, prison officials, social workers … They are masters of deception. And yet, often, people cannot put their finger on what is “off”, what is wrong. Steinbeck in East of Eden writes:

Cathy was chewing a piece of meat, chewing with her front teeth. Samuel had never seen anyone chew that way before. And when she swallowed, her little tongue flicked around her lips. Samuel’s mind repeated, “Something – something – can’t find what it is. Something’s wrong,” and the silence hung on the table.

This is a textbook response to people like this, according to Hare: Something’s “off”. But what? What exactly is “wrong”? You can’t point right at it, but you know it’s there. A skin-crawling sensation the only indication that perhaps you are in the presence of something quite different from your garden-variety human being.

I wrote about Cathy here.

Steinbeck doesn’t mince words. Here is how he introduces Cathy:

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.

It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighed, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.

As though nature concealed a trap, Cathy had from the first a face of innocence. Her hair was gold and lovely; wide-set hazel eyes with upper lids that drooped made her look mysteriously sleepy. Her nose was delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was heart-shaped. Her mouth was well shaped and well lipped but abnormally small — what used to be called a rosebud. Her ears were very little, without lobes, and they pressed so close to her head that even with her hair combed up they made no silhouette. They were thin flaps sealed against her head.

Cathy always had a child’s figure even after she was grown, slender, delicate arms and hands — tiny hands. Her breasts never developed much. Before her puberty the nipples turned inward. Her mother had to manipulate them out when they became painful in Cathy’s tenth year. Her body was a boy’s body, narrow-hipped, straight-legged, but her ankles were thin and straight without being slender. Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs. She was a pretty child and she became a pretty woman. Her voice was huskily soft, and it could be so sweet as to be irresistible. But there must have been some steel cord in her throat, for Cathy’s voice could cut like a file when she wished.

Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her.

She made people uneasy but not so that they wanted to go away from her. Men and women wanted to inspect her, to be close to her, to try and find what caused the disturbance she distributed so subtly. And since this had always been so, Cathy did not find it strange.

Cathy was different from other children in many ways, but one thing in particular set her apart. Most children abhor difference. They want to look, talk, dress, and act exactly like all of the others. If the style of dress is an absurdity, it is pain and sorrow to a child not to wear that absurdity. If necklaces of pork chops were accepted, it would be a sad child who could not wear pork chops. And this slavishness to the group normally extends into every game, every practice, social or otherwise. It is a protective coloration children utilize for their safety.

Cathy had none of this. She never conformed in dress or conduct. She wore whatever she wanted to. The result was that quite often other children imitated her.

As she grew older the group, the herd, which is any collection of children, began to sense what adults felt, that there was something foreign about Cathy. After a while only one person at a time associated with her. Groups of boys and girls avoided her as though she carried a nameless danger.

Cathy was a liar, but she did not lie the way most children do. Hers was no daydream lying, when the thing imagined is told and, to make it seem more real, told as real. That is just ordinary deviation from external reality. I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar — if he is financially fortunate.

Cathy’s lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit. Most liars are tripped up either because they forget what they have told or because the lie is suddenly faced with an incontrovertible truth. But Cathy did not forget her lies, and she developed the most effective method of lying. She stayed close enough to the truth so that one could never be sure. She knew two other methods also — either to interlard her lies with truth or to tell a truth as though it were a lie. If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths.

Since Cathy was an only child her mother had no close contrast in the family. She thought all children were like her own. And since all parents are worriers she was convinced that all her friends had the same problems.

Cathy’s father was not so sure. He operated a small tannery in a town in Massachusetts, which made a comfortable, careful living if he worked very hard. Mr. Ames came in contact with other children away from his home and he felt that Cathy was not like other children. It was a matter more felt than known. He was uneasy about his daughter but he could not have said why.

Nearly everyone in the world has appetites and impulses, trigger emotions, islands of selfishness, lusts just beneath the surface. And most people either hold such things in check or indulge them secretly. Cathy knew not only these impulses in others but how to use them for her own gain.

It is quite possible that she did not believe in any other tendencies in humans, for while she was preternaturally alert in some directions she was completely blind in others.

Back to Sissy Spacek in Badlands. In the middle of Without Conscience, which is basically a self-help book (How to Know If You are Dealing with a Psychopath, and How to Get the Hell Away From Them), Hare analyses the character of Holly in Badlands, from his perspective as a psychologist who has worked mainly in prisons. As he mentioned, he is not in the business of long-distance psychoanalyzing, but here, he shares a theory he has about the murderous duo portrayed in Badlands, and I found it startling and unusual. Something that isn’t really in the preferred “narrative” of that particular film, which, as I mentioned, usually sees Kit as the leader, and Holly as the passive follower. Normally, I don’t like film analysis such as this – which is trying to prove a specific point (that has nothing to do with the art of film-making). For example, a cultural conservative saying, “Such and such is a good movie because it presents core values that I agree with, and here’s why …” It’s shallow and uninteresting, and more like an undergraduate thesis paper than actual film analysis. It is interested in things other than movies. But here, at least in Hare’s thoughts on Badlands, I make an exception, because he takes the film at its word, first of all – and appears to be judging it as a work of art, not a case study. He sees its effectiveness, and also perceives an opportunity to illuminate the character of the elusive “psychopath”, by talking about the film. He does it in such a manner that it really got my attention.

It’s a way of looking at the characters of Kit and Holly (but especially Holly) that I have not seen spoken of before, in reviews of Badlands.

Check it out:

Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands, loosely based on the killing career of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, is a chilling film fantasy with a coldly realistic core. The fantasy resides in the character of Kit Carruthers, whose irresistible charm and slick patter is absolutely consistent with the psychopathic profile but whose attachment to his girlfriend Holly runs too deep and strong to ring true. One might be tempted to dismiss this movie as the typical Hollywood romance of the psychopath with a heart of gold, but look again. Behind Kit sits Holly, strictly along for the ride. It takes a second viewing for the real case history to pop into the foreground: If Kit is the moviemaker’s conception of a psychopath, Holly is the real thing, a true “other” brilliantly portrayed by Sissy Spacek as a talking mask.

Two aspects of Holly’s character exemplify and dramatize important aspects of the psychopathic personality. One is her emotional impoverishment and the clear sense she conveys of simply going through the motions of feeling deeply. One clue is the sometimes outrageous inappropriateness of her behavior. After Kit guns down her father before her eyes for objecting to his presence in Holly’w life, the fifteen-year-old youngster slaps Kit’s face. Later she flops into a chair and complains of a headache; later still she flees with Kit on a cross-country killing spree after he sets fire to her house to conceal her father’s body.

In another example, with several more murders to his name now, Kit lazily separates a terrified couple from their car at gunpoint and directs them out into an empty field. Casually, Holly falls into step with the frightened woman. “Hi,” she says, in her flat, childish voice. “What will happen?” asks the woman, desperate for some understanding of what’s going on. “Oh,” answers Holly, “Kit says he feels like he just might explode. I feel like that myself sometimes. Don’t you?” The scene ends with Kit locking the two in a root cellar in the middle of the field. Just about to walk away, he suddenly shoots into the cellar door. “Think I got ’em?” he asks, as if swatting at flies in the dark.

Perhaps the film’s most subtle evidence of psychopathy comes through in Holly’s narration of the film, delivered in a monotone and embellished with phrases drawn straight from the glossies telling young girls what they should feel. Holly speaks of the love she and Kit share, but the actress manages somehow to convey the notion that Holly has no experiential knowledge of the feelings she reports. If there was ever an example of “knowing the words but not the music,” Spacek’s character is it, giving viewers a firsthand experience of the odd sensation, the unnamable distrust and skin-crawling feeling, that many – lay people and professionals alike – report after their interactions with psychopaths.

There is a great great compliment to Spacek there, in the simple phrase: “the actress manages somehow to convey …”

It is the “somehow” that contains the compliment. The great mystery of great acting. “Somehow”. Who knows HOW she does it. It doesn’t even matter how.

I think that is a fine analysis of the creepiness (and also deeply insightful nature) of Spacek’s work in that film.


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18 Responses to Sissy Spacek in Badlands: An Analysis

  1. Mary L says:

    Such an interesting reflection on psychopathology, Sheila. Thanks.

    You know, Meryl Streep gets all the props for being the foremost actress of her generation (and I think she’s brilliant), but I’m wondering if Sissy Spacek isn’t the true phenom. Not that at their level ranking really matters or is relevant, but I just think Spacek is under-appreciated.

  2. red says:

    Mary L – You’re right – She is truly something else. She’s working on some other level. I’d call it a Gena Rowlands Level, but it’s so much her own I don’t want to do that. She’s due for a renaissance, certainly.

  3. Kate says:

    Fascinating Sheila! I read a book about borderline personality disorder and was struck with (he uses different archetypes to describe the varieties) the Queen who has “emptiness” as the prevailing, presenting trait. She feeds on others using them to fill her emptiness. The author said Queens can often do well as actresses as they, in their emptiness, so easily become others.

  4. red says:

    Interesting. It can also explain the “other-ness” that actors can capture. Christopher Walken has said that he so often comes across as “alien” or “other” or “sinister” – not because he has a villainous soul or anything like that, but because he grew up in show business, he was a child actor – and if anything will give you an experience of being an “outsider” or “other”, it’s being show trash from way back. Never, at any point in his life, was he a normal civilian. I loved his connection with that, and how he was aware of it, and how it served his acting.

  5. JessicaR says:

    Badlands has been on my Must See list forever, this bumped it up to the top of the queue. And I get that skin crawling “I’m going to run away from this person and not stop until something breaks,” feeling. For me the biggest trigger is the eyes. I’ve had people look at me hatefully or with violence but I’ve never been truly scared on some primal level save for a thankful few who are outwardly calm, yes charming, and who smile but it never touches their eyes. That’s the tip off that I’m in danger, the person is smiling and outwardly kind but their eyes are cold and flat.

  6. red says:

    Jessica – wow. Robert Hare goes into the eyes quite a bit in his book – many people describe exactly what you describe. It’s the flat-ness of the eyes – the LACK of emotion – that strikes normal people as … “off”, alien, frightening.

    Badlands is haunting – I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

  7. red says:

    Excerpt from Robert Hare’s book about the eyes:

    Many people find it difficult to deal with the intense, emotionless, or “predatory” stare of the psychopath. Normal people maintain close eye contact with others for a variety of reasons, but the fixated stare of the psychopath is more a prelude to self-gratification and the exercise of power than simple interest or empathic caring.

    Some people respond to the emotionless stare of the psychopath with considerable discomfort, almost as if they feel like potential prey in the presence of a predator. Others may be completely overwhelmed and intimidated, perhaps even controlled, with little insight into what is happening to them. Whatever the psychological meaning of their gaze, it is clear that intense eye contact is an important factor in the ability of some psychopaths to manipulate and dominate others.

    The next time you find yourself dealing with an individual whose nonverbal mannerisms or gimmicks – riveting eye contact, dramatic hand movements, “stage scenery”, and so on – tend to overwhelm you, close your eyes or look away and carefully listen to what the person is saying.

  8. red says:

    Hare does caution against trying to diagnose someone – based on one or two characteristics – like “flat eyes” + “charm” = psychopath!! Plenty of people are charming without being a psychopath. Etc. Still – it’s an interesting thing to talk about and think about. Important, too.

  9. JessicaR says:

    I think I’ll be checking out that book too. I wish there was a better word for the “charm” of a psychopath. Because charm in my experience has pretty much always been a good thing, or I should say when I felt charmed or found a person charming it was genuine, a sharing of warmth. Those few times I felt “played”, that wonderful expression “know the words but not the music.” The person had the outward markers of charm but nothing inside. It’s the unnaturalness of the psychopath that frightens me. I can understand hating someone or wanting to hit someone, but to think that other people do not matter that they don’t even really exist except as some abstract concept for you to use and discard at will, I’m getting that skin crawling feeling just typing this.

  10. Jen W. says:

    I love that you quoted Tom when talking about psychopaths…

  11. DBW says:

    “His name comes up all the time if you research psychopaths, which, uhm, I do.” Love that “uhm.”

    Have always been a fan of Badlands. Love that you are referencing discussion of Holly’s contributions to the killing spree. I always thought her flat “affect” was a strong sign of her wrongness, and that wrongness was more creepy than Kit’s. Her emotional response to everything is unnatural, and the way she narrates her own life as if she was a character in a story rather than a human being is telling to me. She IS a narrator, literally and figuratively–watching her life, while unable to feel normal human connection and emotion. It’s very creepy.

    And don’t get me started on that genetic warning system most of us have when in the presence of someone truly “wrong.” Failure to recognize that feeling, and act on it, can have dire consequences. Without getting into details, my son had a weird experience while on vacation with us in Key West, where he had feelings like that about a particular person. I was preoccupied with other things, and didn’t catch on to his uneasiness. Fortunately, nothing happened, but after that, we established a “code word” that he could use to immediately get my attention if he ever felt like that again.

  12. phil says:

    Love Badlands.

    Great essay.

    I remember searching and searching for the soundtrack when it came out.
    Had as much luck as asking for the Badlands commemorative cup at Burger King.

    Fugate appeared on an 80’s episode of Lie Detector, with F Lee Bailey…and passed.

  13. red says:

    Great conversation, everyone. Thanks so much – it’s been really interesting reading everyone’s thoughts about this.

  14. red says:

    DBW – yes, the more that I think about it, the more Holly seems like the truly frightening member of that scary duo. Kit is a wild card, but even with all his violence, he still seems recognizably human. You can tell he HAS motivations – albeit twisted. She doesn’t. She feels, vaguely, like she SHOULD – because it seems like she would “pass” easier as a normal human being. Nice observation from you about her role as narrator – and how that is a clue. It’s almost like she’s trying to snow us, like she hopes WE will be convinced. “I loved Kit,” she says in this flat voice, and somehow – it doesn’t ring true. But isn’t that what girls should say about their guys? Holly hopes we’ll buy it.

    She’s a mystery, that one – I wonder what the world looks like through her eyes.

  15. red says:

    And that is a very frightening story about your son. It is awesome to know that he, as a child, has the instincts of survival – many don’t.

    It’s strange – people like this make us uneasy but sometimes it’s hard to point to WHY (their charm, their seeming sociability – whatever) – Gavin de Becker talks a lot about this. His focus is on women, quite a bit – and how to listen to our fear, that it is a “gift”. From evolution. Of course it’s true for men as well, but due to socialization women and men often have different challenges. He uses the classic example of being a woman alone in an elevator and a man gets on, and for whatever reason, you feel a prickle of unease. This is the “gift”. The gift that we should not ignore, out of fear of seeming rude or paranoid. He says that women should get off the elevator as soon as possible, and wait for the next one down. So you might come off rude. Oh well. That’s better than being dead.

    A code word sounds like an EXCELLENT idea.

  16. Jen W. says:

    I’ve started reading East of Eden for the first time. I meant to get it after a post you wrote about it awhile ago, and now after seeing it mentioned here again, I’ve taken the plunge. I’m hooked. Thank you!

  17. Nadifa says:

    sheila do you what marlon brandos parents did for living. thank you so much

  18. J. says:

    Your review is interesting, but maybe you taking Malick to serious. Contrary to what everybody says, he loves to make jokes in his films, but very special and very private jokes.
    Think in Badlands as a film made of films, a crazy voyage through cinema. Kit, the “rebel without a cause” inspired in that young killer: Malick; Holly: his muse, cinema.
    In The Tree of Life the names of the characters were ostensively simbolic. “Jack” for Jacob. RL for…, etc. And in Malick’s previous films, were the names arbitrary?
    I might be wrong about this, but the coincidences seem too many. Holly. Why this name? I think it is a reference to “The man who shot Liberty Valance”. It is a film about a girl, Hallie (Vera Miles), two men dispute, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Ramsom is “Mr. Law and Order”, the “pilgrim”, that believes in these two forces and preaches them in the middle of the gunfighters. He even opens a school, one of Ford’s most memorable and ironic creations, where we read in the board: “Education is the basis of law and order”. The dumbest pupil in that “law and order” school was a Carruthers, like Kit. And Tom Doniphon? He is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the absolute outlaw, with good manners: “Liberty Valance’s the toughest man south of the Picketwire – next to me.” In the end “Mr. Law and Order” gets the girl. Tom burns the house he made for Hallie in a furious way that remembers Kit burning Holly’s house. There is even an iron bed waiting to be assembled in Ford’s house. I think that what Malick is saying is that in “Badlands” Tom/Liberty Valance invited the girl for a totally outlaw ride. (Remember Kit’s cowboy boots? He makes a joke when he gets a job as a cowboy: “Well, at least nobody could get on me about wearing these boots any more.”).
    More about this:

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