#20 — Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
The legend and legacy of Days of Heaven begins with the lush, vivid, painfully beautiful imagery. The second full-length feature from director Terrence Malick, the film was and is renowned for its absolutely stunning cinematography that casts its early 20th century rural setting in hues of gold that stand in marked contrast with the lives of roving poverty that it depicts. The director of photography is credited as Néstor Almendros, who won an Academy Award for his efforts, although the great Haskell Wexler, cited for “additional photography,” later grumpily claimed that he shot over half the film. It was the first movie to use a new light-sensitive film stock and also inaugurated the Panaglide, which was an early version of the now common Steadicam. It’s trailblazing feats are evident throughout, as Days of Heaven invites awestruck gaping at its wash of visual loveliness with every scene. It’s reputation as a wonder only grow over the years, helped along by Malick’s inability to conjure a follow-up for almost precisely two decades.
As that reputation grew, the perception of Days of Heaven as strictly a triumph of imagery cemented itself, an admittedly understandable result when practically any given moment can be held up as a work of art. Certainly that any discussion of the film in the greater media was accompanied by lavish clips that emphasized what showed up in the frame bolstered this impression immeasurably, as did Malick’s eventual next feature, The Thin Red Line, a war film that found more profundity in the shifting blades of grass than it did in the fraught experience of the many soldiers populating the razor-thin story. It would be willfully blind folly to deny the beauty of Days of Heaven, but I find the storytelling and the exceptional writing of Malick to be equally noteworthy.
The film follows lovers Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), accompanied by Bill’s younger sister Linda (Linda Marz), as they live an itinerant existence tramping across America in 1916. They get hired on at a farm presided over by a wealthy, frail man named in the credits only as Farmer (Sam Shepard). Sensing an opportunity to gently scam their way out of misfortune, Bill encourages Abby to enter into a marriage of illicit convenience with the farmer. Naturally, things don’t proceed with the planned emotional cleanliness. In some ways, the mounting existential tragedy of the story seems familiar, but Malick invests in with a psychological and spiritual astuteness that rescues it from any threat of patness. Instead, Malick and his actors find the wounded poetry in the story, the inescapable tragedy of those who try to find a shortcut to the promise of a better life. And it’s further bolstered by the period sharpness of the narration delivered by Marz, combining the hardscrabble wisdom with a convincing unfussy simplicity of someone who’s scratched and scraped her way to an unremarkable but oddly satisfying station in life.
The lopsided acclaim heaped on Malick’s visuals throughout much of his career obscures the totality of his talent as a filmmaker. At his best, he’s not an artist who creates empty images that enthrall the eyes while leaving the heart unmoved. Days of Heaven is consistently striking, staggering even, but it’s always at the service of the story, the feelings Malick is committed to conveying. If he just wanted to make pretty pictures, there are other forms better suited to that goal. Malick wanted to be a filmmaker, and Days of Heaven demonstrates how committed he is to every task that comes with that chosen role.