Days of Heaven (1978)
9/10 Fields of Gold
Movies just don’t get any prettier.
Days of Heaven is about a factory worker from Chicago who kills his boss in a fit of rage and gets the hell out of dodge with his little sister and main squeeze. When their train reaches Texas, they settle down and start working the land for a wealthy farmer who’s on the way out due to an incurable illness. As time goes by, the farmer starts to fall for the ex-factory worker’s main squeeze since the two are pretending to be siblings, and instead of putting an end to it, the ex-factory worker convinces her to get involved with the farmer in the hopes that they’ll eventually inherit his riches when he finally kicks the bucket. As you can probably guess, this is a poorly thought out plan and a totally dick move to boot, but some folks just got it out for themselves, I suppose.
So this here is the sophomore effort by good ol’ Terrence Malick and the second of his films that I’ve seen in recent memory after Badlands. And while I didn’t quite fall head-over-heels for this in the same way that I did with Kit and Holly’s Midwest rampage, I just couldn’t bring myself to give this an 8 with so much stuff that would understandably warrant it a masterpiece in certain circles.
On that note, the most noteworthy thing about this movie that’ll continue to drop jaws 100 years from now and set the bar for anyone who ever picks up a camera is without a doubt it’s visuals. It’s pointless to start describing this as gorgeous, stunning, picturesque or whatever, because the stuff that Malick captures on camera simply defies description. As much as these three screenshots can give you a taste of how he utilizes the “magic hour“, they can’t do justice to sitting down and watching this doomed romance play out across endless seas of wheat, that train barrel through the countryside, and those damn locusts swarm through the fields. I really don’t know the first thing about the elbow grease that goes into making a movie from the cinematography to the editing, but even so, it’s pretty astounding to see something that could pass for straight up artwork.
Seriously, it’s effing insane how much of this movie is filmed during the magic hour and how the landscape ends up becoming just as much of a character as the people involved. Just as in Badlands, it’s these kinds of painstaking details that create this incredible sense of structure and intention from beginning to end that’s rare to come across in any medium. I mean, when you think about the scale of this movie and how so much of the plot is governed by how much of the land has been plowed from one scene to the next, it reaches this new height of methodical and it’s no surprise that it literally took Malick years to finish post-production on this sucker. Even if it probably cost the studio a shit-load to finance, this is carte blanche at its finest and risk absolutely paid off.
And while Malick’s writing doesn’t quite operate on the same level as his camerawork, that’s not to say his writing here is by any means weak. It’s just that in comparison to everything else I’ve mentioned that comes off like a cinematic epiphany, it’s a bummer that the weak love triangle fueling this story feels like something we’ve already seen before. I like how Malick isn’t out to make a statement by passing judgment on the actions of his characters and I also liked the way things started getting Biblical in a “reap what you sow” kinda way, but as much as I enjoyed the time I spent with these characters, I wasn’t very surprised by their motivations or how things played out for them. This is a love triangle that’s destined for failure in some shape or form and one that rings a bit out of place amidst so much originality.
But if there’s one thing I loved about this script, it’s the narration from the ex-factory worker’s little sister, Linda. Throughout the story she keeps giving all these fly-on-the-wall, matter-of-fact reflections on everything that goes down amongst her brother, his girl, and the farmer, and it’s her emotional passivity to the very things that everyone else gets so worked up over that prevents this story from coming off as old hat. She doesn’t sound like she’s reading a script, she sounds like a little girl with thick skin who’s just shooting the shit with the audience. It’s something else how Malick manages to draw such authentic, natural performances from his actors, and while that very much comes through with most everyone, it works best with Linda.
Then again, this is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from Richard Gere. Well, it’s not like I’ve ever been bowled over by Richard Gere, but he’s got an interesting character in Bill and the perpetual hothead look actually suits him well. Fine performances from Brook Adams as Bill’s girl, Abby; and Sam Shepard as the farmer. Just nice to see a cast that knows how to underplay things. And what a freakin’ gorgeous, epic score by Ennio Morricone. Had no idea that he was the guy behind this track or that this movie was where it first showed up. Perfect complement to the visuals.
So as much as I wish I’d come away with a connection to the characters and the script in the way that I did with Badlands, they’re different movies entirely and it’s a relatively minor gripe that doesn’t take away from Days of Heaven‘s strengths. It’s not necessarily the most accessible movie out there, but it’s a great mini-education on why so many hold Malick in such high regard from a directorial standpoint. This is a movie that you could dissect from head to toe and one that probably deserves to be for all the time and effort that was put into it, although even just going off of one viewing, it’s impossible to ignore what an achievement this is on a purely aesthetic level.