Days of Heaven (1978)

D: Terrence Malick
S: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

This beautifully photographed film quietly recounts a story of a love triangle against a striking backdrop. Set in early twentieth century North America, it represents a moment of hesitation between the advance of industrialisation and the death of the rural ethos, marvelously captured in ravishing cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler and impressive art design by Jack Fisk. Like the setting, the central characters are shown poised at emotional and economic borderlands, which they tentatively transgress subject to conflicting hopes and fears for the present and the future. Abandoning the darkness and grime of Chicago, foundry worker Richard Gere and lover Brooke Adams become migrant labourers. They pretend to be brother and sister, which results in complications when they arrive at Sam Shepard's massive wheat farm and he falls in love with her. Presuming the landowner to have only a little time left because of a terminal illness, Gere persuades his lover to return his advances, a deception which should hurt no-one, but comes to have serious consequences for all of them.

There is a lot going on in this screenplay by director Terrence Malick (Badlands), and all of it happens in the course of a dumbfoundingly economical 93 minutes. Each scene advances the plot, each moment between characters reveals telling detail, and the film manages to create an epic feel without excess. It is not the most inherently interesting of stories though, and the characters are crafted with such delicacy and restraint that they are frequently overwhelmed by the director's powerful vision. As in Badlands, Malick has fashioned a cinematic poem of the American landscape in which human figures are part of a larger, grander vision of the spirit. Malick uses all of the elements at his disposal brilliantly, allowing simple moments of character interaction in meaningful surroundings to tell stories within stories and allow the thematic ruminations to emerge naturally. The subtle portrayal of the encroachment of industrial capitalism is particularly effective, discreetly detailed by the interplay between man and machine both in the harvest scenes and in later moments such as the arrival of a flying circus and Gere's purchase of a motorcycle. The film is almost pantheistic, finding inspiration (almost divinity) in nature itself, where people are slightly more complex than pheasants, wheat, and locusts, but just as much a part of the environment. It is centrally concerned with the complications brought by human beings to the natural world, particularly those who exercise power over it (hence the setting on a farm). At one point, the reflective voice over from young Linda Manz comments that man is half devil and half angel, and Malick revels in exploring the contradictory impulses which fuel his characters. Their conflicting desires and anxieties, couplings and partings, loves and hates serve not to delineate categories of good or evil, but to illustrate the tendency toward self-destruction which our species can sometimes inflict not only upon ourselves, but on the environment. The film climaxes with an apocalyptic fire following a plague of locusts which is almost mythic in stature and thematically very convenient. Like everything else in the film, it makes it a fascinating work of cinema, but most definitely an acquired taste.

Gere, Adams, and Shepard are good in their roles, navigating their way through the complexities of rapidly changing moods with some consistency. None of the characters is strong enough to emerge from the background though, making it more akin to a European than an American film. This is not so much a flaw as a feature, of course, but it does mean that in spite of its philosophical reflectiveness, it is not as gripping or immediately involving as its predecessor, which may or may not matter to you. It is spellbinding though, and there is definite adult content in its portrayal of human emotional states, making it among the most singular works of American cinema of its generation.

The star of the show is most definitely the cinematography though (and the haunting score by Leo Kottke). Originally shown in 70mm, impossible to appreciate without at least widescreen and preferably on DVD, the film is a breathtaking illustration not just of technical craft, but of how cinematography can be employed in the service of a distinctive directorial vision to stretch the boundaries of visual narrative. The audience is given time and inclination to contemplate the importance of the environment to understanding the story, and its refined evocation of the perils and pleasures of pastoral romanticism is its strongest element. The deliberately unresolved finale is merely proof that no human story has an ending insofar as humanity goes on and continues to inhabit and attempt to dominate the landscape. The final scenes are shot, like the opening ones, through a steely-blue filter which emphasises the coldness of urban space in contrast with the rich, warm hues of the wheat farm. The moment in time we have been invited to share has passed, both literally and metaphorically: the 'Days of Heaven' are over, and may, after all, have been merely the result of willing self-delusion (a theme also explored in Badlands).

From a contemporary perspective, the film is particularly worth seeing in the wake of Malick's return to directing with The Thin Red Line where many of these ideas were amplified against an even more powerful backdrop (the second world war). It is also interesting to see how influential the film was on the disastrous Heaven's Gate, in which Michael Cimino tried gamely to emulate its tone and lyrical simplicity, but somehow lost himself (rather than just the characters) in the details.

Note: The Region 1 DVD features the original theatrical trailer and no other extras, but is worthwhile simply because the format lends itself to an appreciation of the visual and aural richness of this movie (although a special edition would be nice...).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.