In his debut, Terrence Malick is an uncanny creator of pearlescent forms, a very stark balladeer, Mark Twain’s coolly ferocious heir. Small-town life in the 1950s makes for a void quickly filled with outlaw vanity and magazine-stand enchantment, garbage-man punk (Martin Sheen) and teenage baton-twirler (Sissy Spacek) meet and harmonize apathetic psyches in "the big marble hall" of Nature. He's a James Dean wannabe or Billy the Kid perhaps, acting mostly with his shoulders and pockets, a scarecrow with a rifle in the fields and suddenly a cracker-barrel philosopher when facing a recorder. She reads gravelly from Hollywood gossip digests and is told to enjoy the scenery, a freckle-dotted blank sheet of paper crouching by her murdered father (Warren Oates) in an image out of Buñuel’s The Young One, "no shame or fear, just kind of blah." Their rampage through the Midwest is both a severe killing spree and an unsettlingly dreamy account of days and nights in the forest -- the two are Eisenhower spawn in comatose upheaval, but also children watching the movie of their own making unspooling in slow-motion, their amoral equanimity as elemental as the hills and rivers around them. The view of the desperado couple is derived from Bonnie and Clyde only to be stripped of psychological gloss: Instead, Malick marries a self-policing use of lyricism (sunsets as painterly as Monet’s, a revolver fired into a placid lake) with continuous dissociations of narration ("We had our bad moments ... at times I wished he'd fall in the river and drown, so I could watch"), dialogue ("What a nice place." "The tree makes it nice." "And the flowers. Let’s not pick ‘em"), and music (Orloff’s "Musica Poetica" over a burning house, Satie and "Love Is Strange," Nat "King" Cole in the darkness). Parodies of domesticity amid the trees, Faulkner’s catfish tossed in the melon patch, Godard’s nitwits with shotguns (Les Carabiniers). A vision that begins with naturalism and modulates into hallucination, a tabloid item that ends with an ascension into the clouds. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn.
--- Fernando F. Croce