Directed by Terrence Malick
Days of Heaven is Terrence Malick’s second film, followed by a twenty year gap before his next film, 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Knowing even just that gives this film a mythical quality. Recent Malick films are very poetic, but they can range from aesthetically and spiritually pleasing to painfully self-indulgent. It really just depends on who you are, and all I can call on is my own experience watching his movies.
One of his most famous works, made famous by the length of his career, the quality of the cast and the divisive response to the work (either amazing or atrocious), is 2011’s The Tree of Life. It’s the first film I think of when I think of Malick because it’s the first movie of his I ever saw. I’m pretty sure I considered it breathtaking, but I also don’t know why. The film is loaded with wide angle shots, breathy voice over and ruminations on time and self. There’s even a 20 or so minute sequence midway through the film that’s just about dinosaurs, if I remember correctly.
Malick’s films are visually stunning, but they can also feel weighed down by his own sense of wandering. We want to hear about the wanderer’s travels but not necessarily travel with him. His camera floats around a scene as if it’s not even yet sure where to settle. It’s like every cut of his movies is the first cut, and only then can he pick out what’s important. While he searches, he’s asking us to search as well. Maybe that’s an effective device, but I couldn’t even finish Malick’s 2015 film, Knight of Cups because I felt so alienated by his now-stale use of wide angle photography and lack of plot.
But I should revisit it. I think you really have to manage your expectations going into a Malick film. That being said, Days of Heaven is a nice bridge between Malick’s first film, 1973’s Badlands and his subsequent films. This one is loaded with beautiful twilight hour shots of pastoral American landscapes and softly uttered voice over, but it also has an actual plot.
The film still wanders, and the plot never really seems to matter until about halfway into the film. The basic story is this: Two lovers, Bill and Abby, are migrant workers who find themselves working the farm of a wealthy, dying farmer named ‘The Farmer.’ Bill and Abby pose as siblings, along with Bill’s younger sister Linda, whose voice is the one telling us what we need to know throughout the film.
In order to secure a life for themselves, Bill encourages Abby to marry The Farmer so that they can inherit is fortune after his death. She does, and when The Farmer shows no signs of dying anytime soon, Bill leaves.
Sometime later he returns, and when The Farmer learns for sure of Bill’s real relationship with Abby, he becomes furious. After a sequence involving a Locust swarm, meant to invoke images of Hell, The Farmer attacks Bill, going after him with a gun. In the brief altercation, Bill kills him with a screwdriver and flees with Abby and Linda.
This brief flight from the law is very much like the majority of the plot to Badlands. Pretty quickly, though, Bill is found and killed. The film ends with Linda left in a boarding school from which she runs away with a friend.
So there’s a plot, but it only really comes into play in the second half of the film. The first half is all about tone, though even the tone is a bit scattered. The credit sequence begins with somber black and white images of poverty. Bill and Abby are among the poor, as Bill struggles away working in a steel mill. In a matter of seconds, he has accidentally killed his boss, and that’s how he, Abby and Linda find themselves fleeing to the Texas Panhandle.
Linda’s voice over explains how they felt about this time. It’s meant to be freeing, despite the run from the law. They ride the top of a train through a beautiful, wide open landscape with smiles on their faces. The film might be a little off-putting if only because this change in tone is so quick and drastic. Is this about characters who are suffering or about characters who can appreciate life’s offerings? They move from the city, in misery, to the countryside rather quickly, and they’re almost immediately taken by the beauty around them, as though they went from Edward Norton in Fight Club to enlightened in a matter of minutes.
The New York Times review of this film upon its release said the following: “The photography, beautiful as some of it is, is as self-conscious as the rest of the film. People are carefully arranged, frames are carefully composed; there are more silhouettes than in an old nickelodeon.”
Now the film is considered a classic, at least as far as I can tell. Maybe it just takes some time for people to tune their expectations to the right frequency, knowing that this is a Malick film. Now that he has made a name for himself and has a clear sense of style, a film like this feels much more natural, the quick change in tone itself a message rather than a mistake.
The film really is beautiful to look at, but even some of the more improvised moments (Bill and Abby playing in a shallow stream) linger too long and quickly lose their effect. This film might be better if it focused on either the plot or the lack of plot. Instead it does both, and the effect is kind of murky. There might be people who adore the first half of the film and roll their eyes at the second half, or vice versa.
These are characters and actors whose value comes from their looks of longing, their looks of passion. They want something from the world, and for the first time, the world offers something in return. Linda’s voice over tells us that these are people who are used to nothing, and suddenly getting anything confuses them.
There are touching moments, like the playing in the stream at least at first, or like Abby’s delicately confused expressions at the sudden wealth thrown her way following her marriage to Bill. I can’t even say what it is about these moments that seems to work, only that they do.
The story goes that Malick threw away the script during filming and ‘found’ the story through the shooting process. You can certainly tell, as it often seems like he and his crew waited for near dusk, then drove to a beautiful creek or a space in the shadow of a mountain and started rolling. A more recent film, 2016’s The Light Between Oceans did the same thing with less of an impact.
That film, like others by the director (Derek Cianfrance), is heavily improvised, but you can only do so much with beautiful people standing in beautiful locations playacting. There’s no story, but the effect wears off.
There is a lot to like about Days of Heaven, from some of the voice over and the characters wandering around a beautiful countryside, even as they do back-breaking labor, itself a compelling juxtaposition. Then you have the long sequence involving the sudden locust swarm (a very biblical image if ever there was one) followed by the workers setting the fields aflame. The camera loves to wander around this setting, with the characters made silhouettes by the night sky and out of control flames. Again, it’s beautiful to look at, and in context of the story’s theme (and biblical nature), it makes sense.
But for the most part, the camera just wanders a little too long. Maybe it’s just about personal taste, or maybe Malick wasn’t yet convinced he could pull off an entirely plotless film, though he may have wanted to. The build up of the first half of the film feels like the movie Malick wanted to make while the pay off, especially The Farmer’s sudden and underwhelming death, feel like the movie he was told to make.
When The Farmer contemplates his own mortality, the camera lingers, making lemonade out of the lemons that are Sam Shepard’s expressions. The story takes time here, but when The Farmer actually dies, it happens so quickly you can hardly understand what’s happened. The pay off pails in comparison to the build up. Malick seems more concerned with raising questions and making you feel a certain way than he does with answering those questions or offering closure.
Maybe that’s why, despite the narrative closure, he ends the film with Linda running away from her new boarding school. Like most of the film, she will now continue to wander, in search of something.