Another classic digitally remastered for the big screen, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is visually magnificent in large scale, the painterly cinematography a joy to behold. The landscape images that dominate the film, along with the various animals, look gorgeous, there is no denying that. This was my first viewing of the film, I’m ashamed to say, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Many people have gushed about the visuals but I have heard and read negativity about muted emotions of the main characters, which I must say I did not really find. The film is from the point of view of a young girl Linda (Linda Manz) and is narrated by her. Set in 1916, Linda and her hot-tempered older brother Bill (Richard Gere) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who he tells people is his sister to avoid talk, escape from Chicago on a train to find work in the Texas Panhandle. They end up working for a wealthy young farmer, all of them manually working the wheat harvest, and they all enjoy this new way of life, relishing in the outdoors and the new people they meet. The farmer (Sam Shepard), who is rumoured to be dying, gradually falls in love with Abby and asks her to live with him after the harvest. Seeing an opportunity to make all their lives better and more secure, Bill insists she takes the farmer up on his offer and they all stay on in the beautiful big house. Abby marries the farmer but secretly still sees Bill and suspicions are raised. Soon the idyllic life they have made for themselves begins to fall apart.
This is no ordinary melodrama, with apocalyptic undertones and Biblical echoes, including a swarm of locusts, the film takes on a profound new level as it progresses. We see as machines begin to do the manual work of humans in the fields, a subtle nod to the inevitable and however utopic the four character’s lives become we know it will not last. The film is hypnotic, depicting a fascinating period in American history and focusing on flawed, interesting characters. Although we cannot completely relate to their situation, at the heart of the love triangle is a human need to survive and to get the best out of life, something we can all identify with.
As you would expect from a film largely shot outside, landscape and nature are also significant themes within the film. The singular house surrounded by fields can be seen as man’s integration with the natural landscape and it is also the signifier of wealth, the three characters moving into the house affirming their new status. The beautiful shots of the fields during the crepuscular ‘magic hour’ reflect man’s relationship and reliance on the land and also its sheer power, a natural disaster wiping out the crop is of particular relevance, as lives and habitats are still destroyed all over the world by a variety of natural disasters. The story may be steeped in history but it is all too pertinent to today’s world.
I wasn’t completely bowled over by this film when I first saw it but after having had some time to reflect on it my appreciation is growing daily. The familiar Ennio Morricone score is beautiful and haunting, portraying the sadness of the characters as their fate changes. It is an emotional experience, one that I feel will actually intensify with each viewing. It is undoubtedly beautiful but as with all of Malick’s work it is poetic and profound too and it deals with human issues that we still experience today, even if the world has changed at an exponential rate since 1916. This is a film I believe I will grow to love, although I did very much like it straight away, and I am keen to watch it again already. A slow burning classic that is a delight to see on the big screen.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard
Runtime: 94 mins