Much of the mythology surrounding enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick stems from the making and aftermath of his sophomore feature, Days of Heaven. Following idiosyncratic artistic instincts rather than Hollywood convention, Malick took nearly three years to craft this moodily poetic work, which treats its simplistic storyline like an afterthought. During that time, rumors spread about the director’s offbeat methods: For instance, he dictated that large sections of the film be shot at dusk, thereby abbreviating many of his shooting days to short bursts of activity. Then, after the film received a mixed critical reception, Malick disappeared from the Hollywood scene for 20 years. His mysterious withdrawal cast Malick as an artist too pure for the crass ways of Hollywood, triggering years of reappraisal and rediscovery.
By the time Malick resumed directing with The Thin Red Line in 1998, Days of Heaven was firmly entrenched alongside the director’s debut feature, Badlands (1973), as one of the most respected films of the ’70s. Does it deserve such rarified status? Yes and no. Visually, Days of Heaven is unparalleled. Malick and cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler mimicked turn-of-the-century paintings and photographs to evoke the supple textures of a Texas wheat farm circa 1916, the movie’s central location. Malick presents several astoundingly beautiful scenes of workers wading through fields, their bodies silhouetted against pastel-colored sunsets, while composer Ennio Morricone’s lilting music evokes a time when life moved at a more contemplative pace.
Working with frequent collaborator Jack Fisk (credited here as art director), Malick oversaw the creation of a remarkable focal point, the elegant mansion that sits atop a wheat-covered hill, and Malick uses this structure as an effective metaphor for man’s tumultuous relationship with nature: Not only is the house a shelter during weather, it’s a place where relationships that had previously been allowed to roam freely get trapped within the conventions of propriety.
The main plot, which never quite gels because Malick leaves many details unexplained and/or unexplored, begins in Chicago. Traveling workman Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) flee Chicago after Bill kills a supervisor during an argument. Upon reaching Texas, the trio accepts work on the wheat farm, which is owned by a sickly man identified only as The Farmer (Sam Shepard). For murky narrative reasons, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister instead of a couple. So, when The Farmer becomes interested in Abby, Bill encourages the romance—believing The Farmer is terminally ill, Bill hopes to seize The Farmer’s wealth through marriage and build a new life for his family. Unfortunately, complications ensue, leading to heartbreak and tragedy.
Despite the gifts for incisive storytelling he displayed in Badlands, Malcik badly fumbles basic narrative elements in Days of Heaven. His characters are ciphers, his pacing is erratic, and he relies far too heavily on the narration spoken, in character, by Manz. (A similar device was magical in Badlands, but here the narration just seems like a desperate attempt to add coherence.) Thanks to these flaws, the whole movie ends up having the hodgepodge feel of a student film, albeit one with awe-inspiring cinematography. Nonetheless, Days of Heaven casts a spell, which is a rare accomplishment.
Days of Heaven: GROOVY