Released in 1978, “Days of Heaven” was Terrence Malick’s second film which came some five years after his debut “Badlands”. Much like his first movie, “Days of Heaven” had a lengthy production time full of delays, budget issues, and departures from crew members frustrated with Malick’s idiosyncratic, hands-on approach to filmmaking. After finishing “Days of Heaven” Malick would all but vanish from public view and it would be twenty years until his next movie.
The film was immediately recognized for its superb photography, something that was a focal point for Malick. Cinematographer Néstor Almendros worked hand-in-hand with Malick framing one stunning shot after another. Haskell Wexler took over shooting after production delays forced Almendros to leave for a prior commitment. Almendros would win an Academy Award for his work but an understandably irked Wexler was left out.
The sheer magnificence of the photography was universally heralded, but the story had its share of critics. It wasn’t until years later as people began reevaluating the film that a new appreciation for what Malick was doing sprang up. For me, its story is a strength when looked at through the proper lens. This is a story of a young girl and we watch it unfold through her optimistic and sometimes addled perspective. She doesn’t appear as the main character but she’s clearly telling us this story.
The film features a voiceover from young Linda (she’s played by Linda Manz). You can’t help but notice in her voice a strikingly peculiar mix of big city street-smarts and youthful naiveté. While there is a focused central story playing out, Linda looks at things in her own unique way. For example the film begins with Linda’s older brother Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally killing his steel mill foreman after a heated altercation. With no money or place to go, Bill flees with Linda and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). The three hop a train bound for the Texas Panhandle and the reason is obvious to us. But Linda describes and their nomadic lifestyle as “looking for things, searching for things, going on adventures“.
The three are hired on as seasonal field workers by a wealthy, reserved farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister to steer clear of any problems, but it ends up causing more trouble than it avoids. Abby instantly catches the farmer’s eye which leads to a love triangle filled with opportunism and deception.
Still we look at it all through Linda’s young eyes. That’s one reason I believe Malick doesn’t dive as deeply into the Bill, Abby, and farmer dynamic as he could have. One effective technique is the use of frequent fade-to-black transitions between scenes. They relay the idea that what we are seeing are recollections from the storyteller (in this case Linda).
A lot more could be said about the film’s visual beauty – its predominant use of natural light, the way it captures nature and wildlife. But the camera isn’t working alone. Alongside the unforgettable cinematography sits Ennio Morricone’s soulful, aching score. It is impeccably in tune with Malick’s vision and is among some of the late composer’s most timeless work.
But for me it all comes back to a young girl whose hope and happiness ends up being threshed like the wheat of the fields. Still she moves forward doing all she knows to do – accept the hand she’s dealt. Yet despite her (and all mankind’s) plight, nature remains steadfast and indifferent, an idea Malick will continue to explore in several films that follow. “Days of Heaven” is a beautifully tragic introduction to that exploration.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS