At once as preciously mannered and gawkily sincere as Sissy Spacek's faux-naif narration, Terrence Malick's debut feature of 1973 is loosely based on a celebrated killing spree of the 1950s. Malick builds his period piece around the peculiarity of ordinary details as serial killer Martin Sheen and his teenage girlfriend embark on their odyssey of death (as Spacek, the film's viewpoint 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 even as Sheen's lunatic boasting is matched by the chicken-pecking thrusts of his well-coiffed head. Best of all are random bits of movie poetry -- a balloon taking flight, Spacek framed in a doorway and lit by sundown's light.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Malick's new feature The Thin Red Line is the fact that while its director has not made a film in 20 years, his artistic evolution has continued silently, underground, all that time. Each movie is a logical progression from what preceded it. What is clear and precise in Badlands is gauzy in Days of Heaven (1978) and murky in Line. While Spacek's voice-over narration in Badlands follows the action with parodic commentary, Linda Manz's narration in Heaven comes in at oblique angles to the story even as the many male voice-overs in Thin Red Line consistently bog down its action in hesitation, circling back to settled issues, subverting whatever forward thrust the kinetic velocity of Malick's images have accumulated. Many will still think Badlands Malick's best feature; while at times its ironies are too studied, its cleansing clarity is a delight to behold.
Badlands screens Friday, Jan. 1, at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. (with Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets at 5:20 and 9:25 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $6.50; call (510) 843-3456.