Days of Heaven - The Criterion Channel
Days of Heaven – 1978

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Cinematography Néstor Almendros
Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert Wilke

For his second film, Terrence Malick cemented his reputation as an incredible visionary director and a magnificent pain in the ass for people who liked making films the way they were used to making them. As hard as his career has been since then, the world of cinefiles has been forever enlivened by his hard won artistic ground. Malick’s movies aren’t easy. He does not reward the casual viewer. One gets little in the way of encouragement via the traditional avenues of effects, soundtrack and overzealous acting.

The story for Days of Heaven has parallels to his first film, Badlands. It starts with a voiceover by the youngest girl in the film, this time Linda (Manz) gives us the lowdown about her brother, Bill (Gere) and his girlfriend Abby (Adams). After some sharp words and a retaliation leading to death in a factory in Chicago, the trio flees via train to the Texas panhandle. There they end up working as seasonal workers. Bill tells the other two that he and Abby act as brother and sister. The desire to avoid problems becomes the essential plot point.

The owner of the farm (Shepard), becomes enamored with Abby. Bill overhears doctors stating that the farmer has only a year to live. Bill then convinces his girlfriend that this would be a good opportunity. Next we see Abby walking down the aisle with the farmer. Bill sits to the side as all three enjoy the fruits of the marriage. The ranch foreman (Wilke) tells the farmer there is something going on and it starts to weigh on him.

What happens here continues in a leisurely pace. We see the grift happening, almost in real time. Things that happen on the screen are logical and beautiful. It’s like a series of slow moving pictures that only make sense when we see them in order. Although his characters are crooked, they are not without conscience. We see with minimal words how Abby loves Bill, but has grown to love the farmer as well. Bill doesn’t blame anyone, and when the pressure begins to mount, he takes off. Things get better for a time.

The last act begins with Bill’s return. The building of the tension is reflected through the slow trickle of locusts arriving on the table as Linda is making a salad for dinner. Through the subsequent turn of events, passions rise and the fire that has been flickering takes flame in a massive way. The unraveling happens quickly and the result has the trio running again, just like Badlands.

However similar it is to his previous work, the feel is completely different. There is a powerful regret that looms over everyone. They know the score and they feel the guilt of their responsibility for it. The end feels a little bit like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The survivors are poor, but they have wings.

How one takes the film depends on how much the viewer wants to work on feeling what they are seeing. Gere is given little of the lead rope he has in later films, and it helps reign him in to just the right performance. Shepard is understated, of course. He’s also sympathetic without seeming pathetic. Adams and Manz show they understand more about life than most should have to understand. They are sad, but valiant.

I don’t know if I could have enjoyed this film decades ago. And I feel lucky that I haven’t been forced to form an opinion until I had time and the experience to take it all in. I have enough years under the belt to understand Malick’s art without working too hard. I just sit back and experience the life he and his Oscar winning cinematographer Almendros worked so hard to place so languorously on the screen.

(***** out of *****)

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