At once as preciously mannered and gawkily sincere as Sissy Spacek's faux-na•f narration, Terrence Malick's debut feature of 1974 -- revived in a handsome new print at the Castro this week -- can in retrospect be seen as setting the tone for two decades of baroque Americana, works as disparate as Blue Velvet, Fargo, and Natural Born Killers taking their cue from one or another of Malick's frosty stratagems. Loosely based on Charlie Starkweather's celebrated spree of the 1950s, Malick builds his period piece around the peculiarity of ordinary details, as serial killer Martin Sheen and his teen-age girlfriend embark on their odyssey of death (as Spacek's character might put it). Giant close-ups of gasping fish, agricultural implements, a phonograph on fire, jars of paint, and makeshift tools of guerrilla warfare all work as snapshots of life on the run caught on the fly. Malick uses his actors the same way, as bundles of odd details. Spacek's unformed personality and features are set off by her childish clothes and flat speech; Sheen's lunatic boasting is matched by the chicken-pecking thrusts of his well-coiffed head. Looking like the sour sheriff in a forgotten B-western, Warren Oates has a fine couple of scenes as Spacek's crabby father.
Best of all are random bits of movie poetry -- a balloon taking flight, Spacek framed in a doorway and lit by sundown's light -- and an appealingly casual sense of humor. Sheen the garrulous James Dean look-alike selects a big rock to carry away as a souvenir of a key moment in the couple's existence, only to discard it two seconds later for one that's easier to carry. To be sure, on repeated viewings Badlands looks at times too studied, its reliance on Orff and Satie on the soundtrack magical but overdone, some of the ironies a little heavy. It was a first feature, after all -- the first of just two: Malick, perhaps the most talented director of a generation that included Scorsese and Lynch, gave it all up after 1978's Days of Heaven to retreat into a Bartleby-like silence. Amazingly, that silence will be broken this year with a new film (The Thin Red Line), which some of us await like a Melville scholar first hearing of the existence of Billy Budd: incredulity mixed with hope.