The story is simple, if unconventional. It’s the early 1900s. Two down-on-their-luck lovers, Bill and Abby, and Bill’s kid sister, Linda, leave the industrial nightmare of Chicago and find work on a farm in the Texas panhandle. The rich, ailing farm owner falls for Abby, and wants to marry her. Bill and Abby decide to cash in, since the farmer probably won’t live much longer. It’s not like the two lovers will need to stop seeing each other, since they hide their relationship from everyone they meet by telling people they are brother and sister.
From that synopsis you might assume Days of Heaven is a standard tale of love, deception, and betrayal. With director Terrence Malick at the helm (who made the even more experimental The Tree of Life), standard never enters the equation. From that basic plot, Malick assembles a quiet meditation on the infinite beauty of the nature that surrounds humanity, and our determination to ignore it in pursuit of material gain. The virtuoso photography of cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, and Malick’s lyrical structure combine to make Days of Heaven a superlative example of the 1970s New Hollywood movement.
It’s hard to overstate just how stunning the cinematography for Days of Heaven is. The film won that award at the 1979 Oscars, and because Almendros was listed as principle photographer – Wexler came on when Almendros had to leave to shoot another film – he was the only one to receive the award. Because of the slight, Wexler famously wrote a letter to Roger Ebert in which he described sitting in a theater timing all his footage with a stop watch, proving he was responsible for more than half the picture. It’s easy to see why Wexler was so passionate about it. Practically any frame in the movie could be transferred to a canvas and hung in a gallery, but one shot is particularly breathtaking. It only lasts about ten seconds, but the image of an impossibly huge thunderstorm sweeping across the landscape will give you pause. On the left of the frame is a relatively tranquil, blue sky while the right side of the composition is dominated by the angry tempest invading like a marauding army. Much of the film was photographed at “magic hour,” those fleeting moments at dawn and dusk when the sun paints the sky with beautiful pink and purple hues. The skill of both men to catch those gorgeous colors on film with just the right stock and filters is awe-inspiring.
Matching the visual grandeur of Days of Heaven is Ennio Morricone’s delicate and arresting score. The composer wrote music that perfectly complements scenes of natural splendor like the wind rushing over the fields of wheat on the farm or the stark white beauty of a snow storm. The opening credits of the movie use sepia tone stills from the turn of the century accompanied by Camille Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium, which creates an ethereal feel that Morricone is able to sustain throughout.
While the look and sound of Days of Heaven can easily dominate any discussion of the movie, Terrence Malick’s exploration of the themes of his story can’t be discounted. The uncomplicated tale of a love triangle with tragic consequences could have been boring in the hands of a lesser director. But Malick’s preoccupation with the harmony of nature, genesis mythology, and elliptical editing creates an aesthetic that encourages constant engagement on the part of the viewer. When a plague of locusts descends on the farmer’s crops after Bill and Abby decide to con him out of the riches that come from those crops, it brings the Old Testament to mind. This kind of connection encourages a deeper Biblical reading of the main characters. Bill and Abby are like Adam and Eve, trying to rediscover Eden by leaving the corrupted city of Chicago and escaping to the idyllic plains of Texas. Pretending to be siblings speaks to the incestuous undertones of the Adam and Eve story itself. After all, the mythological first man and first woman were husband and wife, but they were essentially raised together and they have the same father.
Bill and Abby are too busy trying to gain material wealth to appreciate Eden when they find it, but they aren’t the only ones who make this mistake. The dreadful thrumming of the machinery that cuts the wheat in Texas is eerily similar to the sounds of the industrial plant that Bill quits in Chicago. All the characters on the farm are living in the days of heaven described by Bill’s real sister, Linda. But she’s just a kid, so nobody seems to realize or appreciate her wisdom.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled against Days of Heaven, it’s that the characters and story lack warmth. There’s a remove from these people, and it feels like Malick cares more about the nature that surrounds them. It’s only a small problem, when you consider the film’s incredible strengths. For a movie as visually dazzling and mentally stimulating as this one, I’ll gladly sacrifice a little emotional depth.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Any person who wants to pursue a career in cinematography should become intimately familiar with Days of Heaven. It will be taught in cinematography classes until movies aren't made anymore.
- The only thing keeping it from being a 5 star film is that nagging sense of emotional remove from the characters. Malick looses them in his obsession with nature.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The voice-over by the character Linda, Bill's little sister, was a last minute addition when it became clear to the studio and the filmmakers that what was happening on screen was too abstract to follow on its own. Most of the voice-over was ad-libbed by 17-year-old actress Linda Manz, and that unscripted quality makes the device quirky enough to work.
- Malick spent years on the editing process for Days of Heaven, and by all accounts he is one of the most eccentric directors of all time. I would love to read a book or see a documentary covering his filming of Days of Heaven, or any of his movies for that matter (none exist that I know of, but I haven't looked that hard. Any recommendations would be appreciated).