The splendidly produced ABC miniseries dwells on the grotesque true story of Charlie Starkweather, 19, who killed 11 people in Nebraska in 1957-58, and his 14-year-old girlfriend,
Caril Ann Fugate, who was with him on his eight-day slaying spree.
Michael O’Hara’s surehanded script and Michael Horowitz’s fine direction spell out the brief career of remorseless bloodletter Starkweather.
Verging on the irresponsible, “Murder in the Heartland” is just the ticket for impressionable viewers with itchy trigger fingers; however, the well-executed but stomach-churning stunt will probably shoot the roof off the ratings.
Charlie, whose past is vague, sets the stage eight minutes into the vidpic when he blasts a gas station attendant with his shotgun.
Caril’s parents object to Charlie because he’s too old for her (not mentioned in the telepic is that he chose Caril because he was too short for girls his own age); in a searing scene in Part I (and repeated from other points of view in Part II), Charlie wipes out Caril’s mother and stepfather; he stabs her
baby sister off camera (actually he choked her to death with a rifle butt).
Charlie and Caril start off on their gruesome journey among the innocents until the law catches up.
O’Hara’s teleplay considers whether Caril was a willing accomplice in the killings, allowing the mini to show violent deaths from several points of view. Claiming she’s a victim, Caril insists she didn’t want to be with him and that she didn’t kill anyone herself. Viewers can decide for themselves.
It would be impossible to select the most repellent seg (the one in the gas station is a lulu), but Charlie’s slaying a deaf woman in Part II is a strong contender. O’Hara and Horowitz display the sin before showing the wages of same — in
this case, Charlie’s execution in the electric chair (right down to the twitches). So “Murder in the Heartland” has a moral after all! Or is it a plea for ending the death penalty?
The entire cast is excellent. Tim
Roth impersonates Charlie in frighteningly convincing fashion, while Fairuza Balk delivers a solid interp of the confused, wary girl who becomes a shrewd, conniving teenager.
The late Kate Reid appears eloquently as Caril’s grandmother, and Randy Quaid plays the D.A. Brian Dennehy is Caril’s defense attorney, and Milo O’Shea is Charlie’s luckless mouthpiece. Jennifer Griffin is Caril’s hard-hit mom,
and Angie Bolling plays a wealthy woman for whom Charlie hauled trash.
Tech credits are superior.
A fictional version of the story was told in the 1973 feature “Badlands,” which ran 94 minutes. Why ABC decided to let this version erupt on the home TV screen for approximately 180 minutes remains a mystery — except for ratings. The mesmerizing telefilm is sure to win fans anxious to view gory deeds.
“I feel good about this,” Charlie declares early on about his bloody antics. At another time, the Nebraska governor decides: “This is a nightmare. Enough is enough!”
In fact, it’s too much.