By Ken Tucker
Updated April 30, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Were it not for the shrewd performances of its two stars, Murder in the Heartland would be just another TV movie doing its best to reduce a uniquely awful, inexplicable event — the 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather — to a tidy little drama that Teaches Us Something About Ourselves.

In Heartland, Reservoir Dogs‘ Tim Roth plays the 19-year-old Starkweather, and Fairuza Balk (Gas Food Lodging) is Starkweather’s 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Poor, bored, and resentful of the world around him in Lincoln, Neb., Charlie decides he has had enough when Caril’s parents tell him to stay away from their daughter-so he shoots them dead. ”The days of Charlie Starkweather being everybody’s whipping boy are over,” says our antihero. He and Caril steal a car and head out for Wyoming.

The first half of Heartland, written by Michael O’Hara (Switched at Birth) and directed by Robert Markowitz (Decoration Day), is taken up with Starkweather’s violent actions against an array of innocent people who just happen to come into contact with this couple on the lam (a total of 11 people were murdered). In the second night, the pair is apprehended and tried: Starkweather gets the electric chair; Fugate, who claimed not to have shot anyone, gets life. One reason Starkweather’s actions are still so potent as pop-culture material is that he didn’t seem to have any reason for what he did, so any number of motives can be ascribed to him. O’Hara’s script leads you to think that Charlie had an inferiority complex — he becomes murderous when — ever anyone questions his intelligence.

But Roth’s performance resists such easy interpretation. His Charlie is a sardonic sadist who smirks, fidgets, and squints all the time. When he talks to anyone except Caril, he scrunches up his face, as if it pains him to try communicating any other way than pointing a rifle at someone. Cultural critic Greil Marcus, in his new book about punk rock, Ranters & Crowd Pleasers, describes the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious as looking like ”an English Charlie Starkweather.” The British-born Roth is, in a way, an English Starkweather, although the actor’s languid Midwestern drawl in Heartland is impeccable.

Balk is equally strong as Caril in a much less colorful role. Given little more to do than squirm, pout, or shriek, Balk brings a tragic mystery to Caril’s motives for staying with Charlie. The script tries to turn Caril into a helpless victim of Charlie’s rage, but Balk’s piercing eyes suggest a strength and intelligence that contradict this.

Heartland had its work cut out for it, since the Starkweather story has already served as the inspiration for two exemplary pop-culture creations: director Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands and Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 song, ”Nebraska.” Malick’s coldly efficient movie offered the tale of two poorly educated kids for whom killing was a way to feel responsible for their own lives; Springsteen’s terrifying, poetic song presented Starkweather as a grim nihilist for whom murder is an act of rebellion.

In each case, a creator had an idea to explore, a theory to test out on his audience; what the creators of Heartland have is four hours to fill. And so a couple of the murders are shown twice-first from the theoretically objective viewpoint of the filmmakers and then from Charlie’s point of view, when he’s talking to the cops and lawyers and doing his best to implicate Caril in his crimes. Charlie wants to assure that when he’s electrocuted, ”Caril will be in my lap.” It’s a good line, and Roth makes the most of its menace, but the repetition of the killings, and the long courtroom scenes that take up much of the second night, don’t add anything to the story. (A note at the end, by the way, tells us that Fugate was paroled in 1976 and now lives in Michigan.)

Roth and Balk alone make Heartland worth watching — there’s also a good performance by Randy Quaid as a ferocious prosecuting attorney and a wobbly, bombastic one by Brian Dennehy as Fugate’s attorney — but this is a story hemmed in by its medium. Network TV withholds the full violence of Starkweather’s crimes. The only time I felt a chill was at the start of the second night, when Charlie and Caril speed along a dirt road, grinning — liberated from their dull lives by the death of others. B-