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Days of Heaven

April 21, 2012

This is one I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.

Released in 1978, Days of Heaven was the second of only two feature-length films made by Terrence Malick prior to his embarking on a 20-year hiatus in Paris, France. This sophomore work, however, appears to have been overshadowed by the acclaim of his more-immediately accessible debut feature, Badlands, featuring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as young lovers on a killing spree; that initial film being a far more rock ‘n roll affair, thematically similar to the hugely popular Bonnie & Clyde and loosely based on the real case of the multiple murders committed by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, in 1958. Written and directed by Malick, and starring Richard Gere and Sam Shepard (marking the first major lead role for Gere and the screen debut of Shepard, respectively) alongside Brooke Adams and the teenage Linda Manz, Days of Heaven proved a challenging and exhausting film to make, spending two years in post-production and editing before finally being released. Today, it does not appear to enjoy the same iconic status as the more recognizable and widely seen films from the landmark era of American cinema in which it was made, despite now being critically lauded and (rightly) held to be one of the most beautiful films ever made. The following will be my own modest and humble effort to redress this unfortunate state of affairs.

Set in 1916, Days of Heaven is a tale loosely narrated by the 15-year-old Linda (and largely told through her eyes). Linda is the younger sister of Abby (Adams), a young woman in love with Bill (Gere), a manual laborer working at a steel mill in Chicago. After an altercation with his boss gets frightfully out of hand, Bill flees with Abby and Linda to the Texas Panhandle where they are hired to work the in the fields of a wheat farm to bring in the annual harvest. Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister to avoid scandalous gossip and it is not long before Abby catches the eye of the quiet, unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill learns that the wealthy farmer is ill and may not have long to live and so begins to encourage Abby to respond to the man’s advances and marry him in order to inherit his fortune. With the farmer and Abby wed, Bill and Linda are welcomed to join the family and live in the rich landowner’s home after the harvest is complete. They all share an idyllic, “heavenly” existence for some months before their situation inevitably begins to unravel and it is not long before all involved are forced to confront the hidden secrets and betrayals amidst biblical disasters and further tragedy.

This plot, however, is incidental at best for what this film delivers is instead a sensory feast of incredibly poignant, masterful images and a haunting and tender musical score. Days of Heaven looks absolutely stunning, the result of the dizzying skills of master cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, the latter being invited to take over photography duties when Almendros had to return to prior commitments on a François Truffaut film. Malick wanted to employ as little artificial studio lighting as possible and rely instead on natural light, much in the manner of films from the early silent era, and this approach was one in which Almendros specialized. The cinematographer, who would win an academy award for his work on the film, shot much of Days of Heaven in the so-called “magic hour” between sunset and nightfall in order to capture the unique beauty and quality of the light during those moments and the result is a film of wondrous, achingly beautiful compositions. Working in conjunction with this magnificent photography is Malick’s deftly evocative editing whereby both combine to deliver a sumptuous, dreamlike production that crafts a film of mythology and the human experience in a loosely biblical tone.

As was quite evident upon viewing, Terrence Malick served as a major inspiration for director Andrew Dominik when he made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Dominik apparently had still photographs from Days of Heaven hanging all over the walls of his production office for his crew to be constantly aware of the tone he was aiming for with his feature. Malick’s film is therefore an ideal choice for those who fully appreciated and enjoyed ‘Jesse James’ as it is very clearly the stylistic progenitor of that later western.  Similarly, the most recent film by Malick, Tree of Life, although the recipient of considerable critical praise and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, has nonetheless been received as a difficult and inaccessible film by some. For those in doubt, or put off by what sounds like too challenging a film there, Days of Heaven can serve as a useful primer to the aesthetic approach of the filmmaker.

There’s something of a narrative minimalism to Days of Heaven, though, again, this is Terrence Malick’s pursuit of a cinematic purity reminiscent of the era of silent films and where the image and sound take precedence over plot and character conventions, dialogue and exposition, etc. It is, however, a profoundly sensual film the emotional resonance of which is both primordial and poetic. Unlike other celebrated movies from the same era, there is nothing in it that can be rendered into easily digestible components to be celebrated and regurgitated in pop culture thereafter; no great quotes, iconic character moments, violent shocks or stunts. This is perhaps why it is not as widely recalled or alluded to in comparison to the contemporaneous classics of American cinema in the 1970s. Nonetheless, Days of Heaven is an intoxicating, enchanting masterpiece and its power and poignancy deserve as wide an audience as possible.

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