Terrence Malick’s debut film Badlands was supposed to be this month’s Blind Spot pick, but for some reason it was the only Malick film that the local library did not have available. So I have opted to talk about another Malick film that was in my Blind Spot up until recently, Days of Heaven. I will be the first to admit that I am not the biggest Terrence Malick fan. It has become somewhat of a black stain to be a serious cinema lover and not love Malick, but I could really care less. Of the Malick films I have seen (i.e. Tree of Life, The New World, and The Thin Red Line), I did not take to them with the same euphoric love that most cinephiles did. It seemed the only words people ever associated with those films were “beauty” and “poetic”. I was wondering if it was just one of those things that people said so that they would not be ostracized from the “cool kids”. However, Days of Heaven finally has me rethinking my views on Terrence Malick.
Days of Heaven is a tragic love story told through the eyes of a teenage girl, Linda (Linda Manz). After Linda’s older brother, Bill (Richard Gere), gets in a fight which accidentally leads to the death of a co-worker, the siblings, along with Bill’s girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), travel to Texas to harvest crops for a wealthy Farmer (Sam Shepard). To avoid gossip, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister in public. When The Famer, whose health is rapidly decreasing, falls for Abby, Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer so that she will be entitled to his fortune once he dies. However, things do not play out the way Bill anticipates.
Despite my previous encounters with Malick’s films, I absolutely loved Days of Heaven. Everything from the way the story builds, to the shots Malick used worked perfectly. The fascinating thing about the love story in this film is that everything is told from Linda’s perspective. This allows for a more objective, and tragic, view of the love triangle as a whole. Shepard’s Famer comes off as a villain at first, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that The Famer is more a victim. He ignored the warnings of those close to him and ultimately pays the price for following his heart. In many ways The Farmer and Bill are two sides of the same coin. They both have Abby’s best interest in mind, however their love for her blinds the men to the reality of their circumstances. Bill is constantly trying to improve life for himself and Abby, but manages to dig himself into an increasingly bigger hole along the way. It was mesmerizing to watch the discussions between Bill and The Farmer throughout the film. There is so much left unsaid in their conversations, yet it is clear that neither man trusts the other.
The unspoken moments that float throughout the film are most evident in the relationship between The Farmer and Abby. It is clear that Abby starts to grow genuine romantic feelings for The Farmer, but just how much is never truly explored. Again, since Linda serves as the narrator, the audience is only privy to select key interactions. However, Abby is far from a mere pawn in the film. In fact she provides the films with some of its riches moments. It could be argued that Abby is the most complex character in the entire film. Brooke Adams scenes with Sam Shepard really helped to keep Days of Heaven riveting. Both actors deliver wonderfully heartbreaking performances. To be honest there is not a bad performance in the entire film. Even Manz does an exceptional job as Linda. Aside from being the narrator, Linda’s side stories and coming-of-age style encounters are as equally fascinating as the main story itself.
As I mentioned in the beginning, using the word “beautiful” in regards to the visuals of Terrence Malick films has become a generic comment. However, it is hard to deny how absolutely stunning this film is visually. Rarely has a film captured the beauty and harshness of life in the early 20th century like Days of Heaven does. It becomes evident early on why Néstor Almendros won a much deserved Academy Award for his cinematography work. Whether it is a train traveling across the landscape, characters playing baseball, or a slew grasshoppers destroying crops, there is plenty of visual splendour to behold in this film. Outside of The Tree of Life, it could be argued that Days of Heaven is Malick’s best looking film. Visually stunning and filled with rich characters and performances, Days of Heaven is an exceptional film that can truly be considered essential film viewing. It has not only made me eager to track down Badlands, but also has me wanting to give Malick’s more recent films a second chance.