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Picks and Pans Review: Murder in the Heartland

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ABC (Mon., May 3, 9 p.m. ET)


This often spellbinding two-parter is based on the murderous rampage of Charles Starkweather in Nebraska in 1958.

Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs), who looks like a demented, ducktailed Eric-Idle, is marvelous as the vile 19-year-old Starkweather. Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz) is also excellent as Starkweather’s 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather is a dirt-poor Midwestern delinquent with a taste for guns and rock and roll. When he loses his job hauling trash and is forbidden to see Caril Ann by her parents, he drags her on his senseless shooting spree, which claims 10 lives and shocks the Eisenhower era’s veneer of decency and politesse.

Over the first night, which details Starkweather’s killings, director Robert Markowitz maintains a shatteringly spooky mood along with a perfectly achieved sense of time and place. The conclusion (the following night) shifts to the capture and trials of Starkweather and Fugate. Though it brings in fresh acting troops (Brian Dennehy as her lawyer and Randy Quaid as the prosecutor), it never recaptures the mesmerizing power of the first half. (Starkweather was executed in the electric chair—a 1959 event graphically depicted here. Fugate received life imprisonment and was paroled in 1976. She now works as a nurse’s aide in Michigan.)

Roth plays Starkweather as a punk, smirking and snapping gum even as he’s sentenced to death. But he’s a very image-conscious punk. When his lawyer (Milo O’Shea) counsels him to plead insanity, Roth responds, “No way. I’d rather skip the trial and go straight to the [electric] chair…. I got a reputation to uphold…. Nobody remembers a crazy man.” Nobody who sees this movie will forget Roth’s Starkweather.