1970s, 3.5/4, Drama, Review, Terrence Malick

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven (1978)

#6 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.

This is the first time I’ve seen Days of Heaven well. That is to say, the previous couple of times I’ve seen it was the old DVD from Paramount with washed out colors and cropped. The Blu-ray from Criterion is gorgeous though, and it really increased my appreciation of the film. This might be Malick’s most beautiful film with large portions filmed during magic hour, a heavy emphasis on natural light, and a focus on slightly underexposing the image producing gorgeous images from beginning to end. I’d never really appreciated just how pleasing the movie was to look at with the Paramount DVD. That being said, this is largely the one Malick that I have the most trouble feeling on an emotional level. Everything else gets me, but I think I now understand the distance I feel after my third viewing.

The story is set in 1916 when Bill, his younger sister Linda, and Bill’s girlfriend Abby flee from Chicago after Bill accidentally kills a supervisor in the mill he’s working at and they make for the panhandle of Texas where they work bundling a wheat crop for a reserved and young farmer. Bill and Abby work hard in the field while Linda is always off to the side, and that’s how the movie is really told. It’s all done with Linda’s voiceover as she observes without any real emotional connection to the events. Some find this incredibly involving, but I feel like it creates a disconnect between the film and the audience. Even her brother leaving the movie at a certain point seems to have no real impact on her.

So, Abby captures the eye of the Farmer, and Bill overhears the Farmer’s doctor say that he has only a year to live at the most. Bill, having resigned himself to a life of mediocrity, sees his chance to the big score, and he talks Abby into marrying the Farmer, assuming he won’t survive the year. This is where the recurring motif of Eden on Earth appears in Days of Heaven. The idyllic, natural life on the farm with little care of practical reality settles on the four characters, and they’re all happy. However, the seeds of their own unhappiness never leave them since paradise is impossible on Earth. Abby does love Bill, and Bill finds it harder and harder to hide his affection for Abby as well as his increasing jealousy over Abby’s steadily increasing affection for the Farmer. The Farmer also can’t deny that this “brother” and “sister” are remarkably close physically, spiking concern and jealousy in him. This is the emotional core of the film, and Linda feels disconnected from it. Since she’s the character that we see the action through, I feel like it acts as a disservice to the emotional reality of the story at play.

Bill eventually leaves with a trio of circus performers, and, left behind, Abby and the Farmer get closer and closer, but the Farmer still can’t quite let go of the idea that Abby and her “brother” were up to something, especially when the Farmer’s long-time associate brings up the idea on his own. It all comes crashing back down when Bill comes back, gets caught in a private moment with Abby by the Farmer which is really just a goodbye, and a plague of locusts hit the new summertime fields of wheat. The arrival of Bill and the locusts so close together is a connection that no one mentions in the film, but it seems undeniable that the two are linked narratively. Bill’s reappearance is the spiritual destruction of the peace of the farmhouse in the same way that the locusts are the physical destruction of it. On top of it, the Farmer’s reaction to both makes both worse. He ignites a fire in the fields on accident and allows the fire to burn up his entire crop while, afterwards, the Farmer attacks Bill.

Interestingly, the movie returns to the Eden on Earth motif after Abby, Bill, and Linda flee the farm. They take a boat down the river, and left to their own private devices for a short time, they are once again happy to a certain extent, but much like the first appearance of a false paradise, this one must come to a violent end as well.

I’ve seen Days of Heaven three times now, and I still feel a certain disconnect emotionally. I really think that’s because the film is told from Linda’s perspective. She never feels emotionally connected to anything around her, so when big emotional things happen, we get her voiceover that doesn’t seem to reflect the emotion of the scene.

Still, the movie really is gorgeous. Really, it’s really, really pretty to simply look at. It seems like a weird thing to really emphasis, but when a movie looks this good from opening frame to closing, it really deserves mention. Malick and his Director of Photography, Néstor Almendros, made something gorgeous without feeling fake in any way, and it was entirely done on purpose. The underexposure that de-emphasized the blue skies makes for a wonderful image, but it apparently irritated the old-school Hollywood crew to a rather unreasonable degree.

I’m not sure why Malick decided to stop making movies after this. He apparently got deep into the pre-production work on Q, which eventually morphed into The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time 30 years later, and he realized he couldn’t actually make the film so he just upped with his girlfriend to Paris for two decades. I’m really glad he took the time, I supposed, because I feel like the work he made when he came back is his best work.

Rating: 3.5/4

3 thoughts on “Days of Heaven”

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