Memories of ‘Badlands’ as real-life inspiration hits the headlines

For whatever reason, a lot of elements have combined lately to make me think of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” It’s never an unwelcome thought, of course: Malick’s debut feature, which somewhat unbelievably celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, remains his coolest and crispest work. That’s not necessarily to say it’s his best, but this portrait of a kid couple’s Midwestern massacre retains a bare, bony lyricism that cuts as close today as it must have in 1973; it’s at once his oldest and youngest film.

Attuned audiences will surely detect its influence (along with that of Altman’s contemporary, comparable “Thieves Like Us”) when David Lowery’s festival hit “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” hits US theaters next week. Writing about the film from Sundance, I described it as something of a spiritual sequel to “Badlands”: following the grim fortunes of a young criminal couple after they’ve been apprehended, it’s a bleak study in elusive redemption that, I wrote, is “enough to make you wonder if Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were better off preserving their love in a hail of bullets.” (Coincidentally — or perhaps not? — “Badlands” has been also been programmed in London’s annual Summer Screen festival this month. No better time to check it out.)

Today, however, I found myself thinking of “Badlands” for sadder, rather more lurid reasons, as the recent misfortunes of Caril Ann Clair hit the headlines. If you haven’t heard of her, Malick’s film wouldn’t directly inform you. Names and situations were altered, but the film was loosely based on the story of Clair (née Fugate), the youngest woman in US history to be tried for murder; in 1958, aged 14, she accompanied her 25-year-old boyfriend Charles Starkweather on a cross-country crime spree that claimed 10 lives, including those of her mother, stepfather and baby sister. It’s still not known how many, if any, of the murders she committed herself — Clair maintains her innocence to this day — though she served 18 years in prison for her involvement.

It was an unhappy beginning to an adult life that took another tragic turn on Monday, as the 70-year-old Clair was injured in a single-vehicle crash in Michigan that killed her husband of six years, Frederick. On the one hand, it’s a contained misfortune that wouldn’t be in the news at all if it weren’t for her salacious past, and it’s surely vulgar to examine it at any kind of symbolic level. Life-versus-art statements would be similarly tenuous: “Badlands” wasn’t even directly about her, after all, though her story has inspired a couple of less notable biopics.

Yet the story still rattles me somewhat, if only because it makes me contemplate the way we alternately preserve or extend film narratives in our memories; the way we allow some particularly vivid or affecting characters to carry on in hypothetical lives, and are happy to cut off others where the film leaves them, in permanent, uncertain stasis.

For me, Sissy Spacek’s Holly Sargis in “Badlands,” a piercing blank slate of a characterization, falls in the latter category. The film ends with her receiving probation, her life rather unprepossessingly before her, but I could never imagine where she’d go or who she’d be from there; Spacek’s performance, perhaps, is so unnervingly still that it’s easier to see her never growing up, never leaving that brink. And since I’d never thought to look up Clair’s subsequent movements, that wasn’t a difficult impression to sustain. Monday’s news, and the background biography that comes with it, paints a different narrative. So, if only in my idiosyncratic interpretation, does “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Holly stays safely, if unhappily, frozen in fiction.

I’m not sure where I was planning to go with this, but it was on my mind. Best hand over to The Boss, then.