Overview: An ill-tempered worker accidentally kills his boss, flees to the Texas Panhandle with his lover, and convinces her to partake in a scheme that results in a lethal love triangle. Paramount Pictures; 1978; Rated PG; 94 Minutes.
Form: Many great film directors make you squint to find the story. Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Jim Jarmusch, Christopher Nolan– all directors who make you hunt the details microscopically. True auteurs of film, without argument. But Terrence Malick has no interest in that ambition. Malick holds sole occupation on the other end of the spectrum. He seeks to make the audience’s eyes widen, to somehow extend the size and scope of the frame without diminishing the human, dramatic element held within. At Malick’s best, he tells an infinity of stories all at once. His is the narration of nature, the universe, history, and, at the center, character dramas. Every time I finish a Terrence Malick movie (with the exception of the leftover casserole To the Wonder), I immediately think to myself “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen.” That’s almost certainly a reactionary knee-jerk mistake, but it isn’t unfounded. It’s easy to confuse”unlike anything else” with “the best,” and no one else approaches film from the same philosophical and aesthetic angle as Terrence Malick.
Art Imitating Art: Days of Heaven was visually inspired by the art of Andrew Wyeth and, in particular, the realist’s painting Christina’s World. What isn’t obvious in mimicry has been confessed by the director in years since. Wyeth’s art presents human figures whose loneliness is emphasized by the hushed organic tones of the surrounding landscape. With arguably the most stunning camera work in film history, cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler place Days of Heaven’s characters in the same vacuum of muted colors and sounds, the same long and stretching hayfields, positioned against the same distant, softly burning Texas horizons. What plays out amongst them is a script of high human drama, a plot that is at once violent, emotional, and romantic. It contains all the elements of classic theater: murder, love, betrayal, struggles of power and class. There are even chapters of Biblical force: the locusts and the fire. Richard Gere perfectly occupies Bill, a man of desperation and clumsy cunning, blindly in love and constantly scheming to preserve his relationship. Brooke Adams as Abby is the realized heroine who is, at once, the pawn and the mastermind, the victim and the victor of passion, a heart torn between familiar love and developing, unexpected love. And Sam Shepherd is both a lonely hero and unsympathetic villain. It is as realized and complex a conflict as any. And yet it all feels distant, unaffected, diminished by the gravity of a larger world and history, and made unnaturally ethereal by Ennio Marricone’s now famous score.
Half-Angel and Half-Devil: The surreal liquidity of Days of Heaven’s narrative was not an effortlessly accomplished phenomenon. Malick kept the film in the editing process over three years, laboring to tie the his footage together into a cohesive product. Reportedly, his goal was ultimately accomplished when he invited the youngest star in the movie, Linda Banz, to improvise the voiceover that so seamlessly and surrealistically ties the scenes. Banz’s words are as rich and poetic as the film’s visuals. Telling and powerful, they reorganize everything that is seen onscreen so that it all becomes Linda’s story, and here the audience’s intuited distance from the story is explained. These miraculous and tragic events are filtered through the perception of a young child who either, in her naivete, fails to understand or, in her self-protective strength, chooses not to.