DIRECTED BY

Terrence Malick

 

STARRING
Richard Gere
Brooke Adams
Sam Shepard
Linda Manz

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1978

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 33 Mins.

From 1978's "Days of Heaven."

Days of Heaven August 11, 2018  

scrapped; reshoots, scheduled a year after the film’s production had wrapped, were obligatory. Malick would not make a movie again until 1998’s The Thin Red Line, purportedly because making Days of Heaven was so exhausting.

 

Watching Days of Heaven 40 years later, it is clear why Malick found it so difficult to quickly come up with a follow-up. We also come to be grateful that the filmmaker, ever-fickle, so assiduously perfected the feature in spite of studio pressure. This is the rare sort of staggeringly beautiful movie that unwittingly epitomizes everything cinema could be; it is sensorially exuberant, exquisitely shot and conceived. When you have actualized perfection, where do you move afterward?

 

Upon the film’s release, there was much discussion that Days of Heaven was purely a feast for the senses, undermined by its desiccated theatrics. In some ways, this is a valid argument: At times, the film’s narrative only seems to be there to give the images something to work off.

 

But as we settle in, it becomes evident that a picture as conceptually stunning as Days of Heaven does not need to be dramatically substantial to be rousing. Its ideas and images suffice. It is about innocence lost, and an American dream that will never be realized. Visually, it stands by the conviction that even as one lives an indigent life, the magnificence of the natural world just might be enough to make even the most dilapidated of a life feel luxuriant.

 

Unlike Badlands, the lovers-on-the-run drama which continues to feel inexplicably modern, Days of Heaven is more specifically tied to a moment in time. It is set in 1916, and achieving one’s hopes and dreams seems attainable. It is about a triad of Chicago-based, lower-class people — the blue-collar worker Bill (Richard Gere), his thick-skinned baby sister Linda (Linda Manz), and his ever-forgiving lover Abby (Brooke Adams) — trying to make the most of threadbare existences.

 

This optimistic outlook is dashed just as the film opens, though: Bill instigates a fight with the boss who runs the steel mill at which he works, and he semi-accidentally kills the man who hired him.

 

With their options limited, Bill, Linda, and Abby (posing as her lover’s sister in order to prevent unseemly gossip) flee to the Texas Panhandle. If they move down south quickly enough, they figure, the law will forget about the steel mill boss’ death. Such a misguided thought ends up having substance: the troika not only is not followed, but they also manage to get jobs as soon as they arrive in Texas. They are hired on by a farouche, unfathomably wealthy unnamed young farmer (Sam Shepard) who needs scores of field workers to tend to his miles of acreage.

 

Perhaps inevitably in a movie that comes across like a more poetic version of a certain George Stevens movie, the farmer comes to take a liking to the clan. He grows particularly fond of Abby, with whom he falls in love and asks to stay until after the upcoming harvest is completed.

 

Not long after this, Bill serendipitously overhears a doctor telling the farmer that he has a year to live. Bill, never one to possess much of a moral compass anyway, encourages Abby to marry the farmer. Once he dies, Abby will stand to inherit a large sum of money, and thus allow her, Bill, and Linda to live the idyllic existence they’ve for so long yearned for.

 

This storyline could make for ripened melodrama; it sounds like the basis of a particularly overblown William Wyler-helmed opera. But the film, told from the perspective of Linda, a sanguine girl of about 15, seems detached from the seriousness of the plot.

 

We gather this is because Linda, who has never known what it is like to live a charmed life, has become so hardened that a period like the one depicted in Days of Heaven — wherein she experiences the wonders of sweeping, sun-dappled farmlands; the perks of being in this affluent, handsome farmer’s good graces; and the feeling of being “in” with these beautiful, seemingly all-knowing adults — might look like golden days.

 

Her narration reminds me of Scout Finch’s in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, from 1960. Though the 6-year-old Scout is unusually wise for her age — in contrast to the jejune Linda — both speak almost entirely in accidental aperçus. Linda’s remarks are juvenile and minimally descriptive, and yet they are revealing when juxtaposed with the actions of the characters. It is as if she knew more about the surrounding adults than they ever could about themselves.

 

The detachment that culminates from her narration is fascinating. As all children do, Linda looks at everything through a rose-colored lens, unless something has a negative impact on her. To have a storyline that would otherwise be told sensationally somehow appear muted, and even sentimentalized in certain moments, is eerie, but it’s also an inspired sidestepping.

 

It is strange to think this effect was perhaps not intentional on Malick’s part. (For all intents and purposes, both the actual and post-production were frustratingly bestrewn.) To so convincingly portray a child’s point of view seems a painstaking endeavor.

 

Most striking about Days of Heaven, though, is not its unique storytelling technique but its spectacular visual style, which continues to be the film’s most breathtaking, and lauded, attribute. The majority of the credit is given to the Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros, a 40-something-year-old newcomer. But recognition is also given to Haskell Wexler, known for his indelible work on the black-and-white quasi-tragicomedy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, from 1966, and the chic, 1968 caper film The Thomas Crown Affair

 

It has never been agreed on who is more responsible for composing the movie’s optic style; at the time, Wexler was not in the good graces of his studio. (He once sent the critic Roger Ebert a letter stating that he shot more than half the movie.) 

 

What is clear, though, is that some of greatest of all cinematographic work is found in Days of Heaven. Most of it was shot during magic hour, the period just before sunrise and sunset; natural lighting was almost exclusively used. (Some interior scenes forced Almendros and Wexler to do away with this practice, however.)

 

The movie looks otherworldly as a result. The way the camera regards the landscape through a copious number of extreme long shots is reminiscent of the paintings of Thomas Cole. The fiery orange of the sky, and the rough textures of the endless, encircling wheat fields, are so vivid that watching the film on a big screen becomes immersive; we feel as though we are standing next to one of the primary characters, appreciating our surroundings as the warm winds play with our clothes. The actors are filmed, often in close-up, with an honesty that allows us, too, to feel the sun heating up their necks, the dirt and sweat begriming their faces.

 

Days of Heaven is a film of great mystery. Not because it is circumlocutory or untelling, but because it invokes a considerable emotional reaction out of us through no easily explicable means. The storyline could survive in any garden-variety melodrama — though it is othered by Linda’s narration — and there is no overarching “point.” And though it is stylistically imaginative, it's understated. What is it, then? Is it its extraordinary visual beauty that strikes a chord? Its way of adducing misplaced nostalgia?

 

It bears remarkable power. Famously, Malick essentially went into hiding after making Days of Heaven, retreating to Paris and passing the time by writing myriad screenplays, some of them dramatized in later years. His disappearance added to the film's ethereality. 

 

He came back to filmmaking, in 1998, with The Thin Red Line, and from there would continue working more regularly. His 2010s have been especially prolific. It is Days of Heaven, though, that remains the crux of Malick’s intermittently transcendent career; it is the highest point in his creative life, likely never to be eclipsed. A+

T

errence Malick’s second feature film, Days of Heaven, was shot in the fall of 1976, but it would not be released until late 1978. Legend has it that Malick, who had earlier earned raves for his debut, 1973’s Badlands, had the majority of his artistic epiphanies during post-production. Out of curiosity, Malick experimented with the art of the voiceover during the editing process, and decided that the characteristic would have to stick. Subsequently, time-consuming readjustments became necessities. Bounteous dialogue was