By Jack Jones
Days of Heaven is arguably Terrence Malick’s greatest film. Whether you can actually call Malick’s on-screen creations films or a form of visual poetry is debatable but what is indisputable is the astounding visual beauty and metaphorical profundity of Days of Heaven. Thanks to the success of The Tree of Life at Cannes this year, where it won the Palme d’Or, Terrence Malick’s highly regarded oeuvre is being re-released with some exquisite digital restorations.
By Jack Jones
Days of Heaven is arguably Terrence Malick’s greatest film. Whether
you can actually call Malick’s on-screen creations films or a form of visual
poetry is debatable but what is indisputable is the astounding visual beauty
and metaphorical profundity of Days
of Heaven. Thanks to the success of The Tree of Life at Cannes this year, where it won the Palme d’Or,
Terrence Malick’s highly regarded oeuvre is being re-released with some
exquisite digital restorations.
Malick’s films have always
been beautifully crafted and incredibly well shot, if sometimes a little
esoteric and deliberately unconventional. Following on from Badlands, a film considered by most to be Malick’s best, Days of Heaven is a more than worthy successor. In fact, Days of Heaven is markedly comparable in style and expression to Badlands, if not superior in its execution.
The use of over-narration as
a way of portraying characters internal monologues features prominently as it
did in Badlands and is a technique that will be familiar to those
who are aware of Malick’s work. Whether you’ve seen Malick’s films from Badlands onwards, or come across them in your own order, Days of Heaven contains themes that are common practice in Malick’s
style of filmmaking. Some accuse Malick of all too often repeating himself or
verging on self-parody because of his fondness for cryptic narration and
religious metaphor but, at its heart, Days
of Heaven is a story about the fall from
grace and the paths to heaven and hell.
Narratively Days of Heaven is uncomplicated in its central story while
thematically the film is deeply layered and dense. After Bill (Richard
Gere)murders a man at a steel mill where he works, he is forced to flee Chicago
with his sister Linda (Linda Manz) and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). After
fleeing to a Texas farm as seasonal workers to harvest crops, Bill encourages
Abby to marry a dying farmer (Sam Shepard), who has become infatuated with her,
in order to inherit his wealth. After lying about their relationship and
claiming to be brother and sister, Abby and Bill have difficulty in hiding
their true feelings and cause the farmer to doubt the validity of his marriage.
As the love triangle sways
between lust, doubt and regret, an exploration of existence and morality
emerges. More precisely, Malick constructs his own fable or religious parable.
The use of gentle photography of swaying wheat fields, contrasted with a sudden
violent scene reminiscent of a biblical plague, is a sudden jolt of drama so
unforeseeable that you’ll be left wide-eyed. The point of such a scene is to
make a distinctive connection between human actions and spiritual consequences.
While Bill is a charismatic man who dreams of a better life, his short temper
condemns those around him to dark ends.
At the time of filming, the
cast was relatively unknown and had mainly come from theatre backgrounds. This
particularly helped cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who at Malick’s
insistence shot most of the films scenes during a small window in the day
between sunset and nightfall called the “magic hour”. This twenty-minute window
only allowed for precise shooting time despite Malick’s preference for free
acting and natural camerawork. Actors such as Richard Gere and Sam Shepard
helped with the precise nature of the schedule, while the inexperienced Linda
Manz struggled to remember lines and influenced the decision to have mainly
improvised narration from her character.
As Bill, Gere shows a
glimpse of the actor he perhaps could have been with an excellent brooding
performance, where his frustrations and anger make him seem genuinely
dangerous. While Brook Adams and Shepard exhibit a nuanced performance of a
false marriage that blossoms into true love.
If there is a film or
director who has been as directly, or indirectly, influenced by Days of Heaven, it is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There
Will Be Blood. Both these films are
influenced by the pastoral history of the American South and show a dark side
of simple rural life. There is also an astonishing use of sound in both films;
there is often little or no dialogue and an atmospheric contrast between big
industries and the quiet open expanses of the American landscape.
Whether you’re a fan of Malick, or a novice, the re-release of a unique
set of works by a unique filmmaker is an opportunity to get a glimpse into the