Days of Heaven is the rare film I went into without knowing much about it. I don’t know how that affected my viewing of it, but there it is. I knew it was praised for its excellent and beautiful cinematography, it starred Richard Gere, and the plot had something to do with a love triangle. Needless to say, there is a lot more to it than that. Though the story is rather simple, the film is not by any means.
The film is narrated from the perspective of Linda (Linda Manz), a young girl of about fourteen (I’m guessing on the age). Her brother is Bill (Richard Gere), and he works in some sort of factory. He has killed a foreman, and now they need to escape. (This is never fully explained.) He takes Linda and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), down to Texas to work on a farm. For reasons not fully explained, Bill and Abby pretend to be siblings rather than lovers. I can only guess that this is due to the time period; the film is set in the early 1900s and these two travelling around together and not being married would probably be frowned upon. This also comes in handy later, when the wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard) they work for falls in love with Abby. Bill encourages her to marry him, because he is sick and will die soon, hopefully leaving them all his money. He’s tired of living a low class nomadic life. Abby originally resists, priding herself on not having succumbed to this type of thing yet in her difficult life, but eventually yields.
They do get married, and Linda and Bill also move in with the farmer. It’s hard for Bill and Abby to keep up the charade that they are brother and sister though, and eventually the farmer gets suspicious. Bill leaves, and returns about a year later. The farmer is still alive; Linda ominously observes at one point that he is taking an annoyingly long time to die. They live happily and uneventfully during that year, but when Bill comes back the suspicions that the farmer have are confirmed. There are consequences, including deaths and locusts.
The plot is rather simple; it’s your classic love triangle. The story is told in such an unusual way, bringing in a lot of background ideas that compliment the simple story. It almost seems as if the story is there to preoccupy us while Malick ponders some serious questions. There’s an emphasis on community, especially at the beginning of the film. There are a lot of shots of the workers on the farm just hanging out, swimming, dancing and singing around a campfire, or actually working. They all move together. The images exude a simple harmony that you don’t see often in large groups of people. The only other film that I can think of where this occurs is Witness, when the Amish community is building a house. That’s only for like one scene though. Yes, I suppose it’s quite idealized, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Even when the harvest is over and the workers leave, there’s a lot of Abby, Bill, Linda, and the farmer just playing outside and enjoying themselves. You get the feeling that Malick really yearns for this type of life, just being with people you love outside, totally in touch with nature and everything. This natural communal idea in the film is emphasized by the namelessness of almost everybody. The farmer’s name is never said, honestly I didn’t ever catch Abby’s name, and I didn’t remember Bill’s or Linda’s until I looked them up. The other workers were never named. They just all seemed like people, not all necessarily the same, but definitely all part of one unit.
Of course, it’s all fun and games until the love triangle thing is exposed. Until then, you just have a lot of simple, contented harmony between people who don’t have much to worry about. These are the “days of heaven” referred to in the title, and unfortunately they are all built on illusion. Once the illusion is exposed as being an illusion, they come to a pretty quick end. That’s an interesting point, that in this film perception seems to be more important that the truth. What the characters believe at the moment is, for all intents and purposes, the truth. Only when they are remembering or have discovered that it’s a lie do they become worried or angry. Linda seems to be fine with this lying the whole time, but then again she is not as involved as the other three. Abby doesn’t seem so keen on it towards the beginning, but she likes the life that it gives her. She starts to feel guilty about it later though, thinking she might actually love the farmer or at least like him enough not to want him to get tricked like she is tricking him. Bill is pretty interesting, at first he doesn’t seem to really care about the farmer’s feelings, then does the typical thing and gets really jealous. The atypical thing is that when he comes back, he actually realizes he has no one to blame but himself. I really didn’t expect that out of this guy. I don’t think he’s ever really worried about how the farmer feels, but he is worried about Abby and he doesn’t want the days of heaven to go away either.
Once the farmer finds out though, watch out. A plague of locusts literally comes right out of nowhere. I was thinking this was going to distract the farmer from doing anything crazy; he was kind of starting to before the locusts came but once they did I assumed he was sufficiently distracted. It actually went the other way these things usually go, and that is that he used the opportunity when everything was in chaos to go after Bill. It’s nighttime, they’re trying to smoke the locusts out and also gathering them up and throwing them on the fire, people and tractors are going every which way; it’s a pretty frightening and hellish scene. It’s judgement of biblical proportions. The interesting thing is that it only happens when the farmer finds out about Abby’s deceit, not when it actually occurs. This suggests, to me anyway, that the crime was not the crime itself, but being careless enough for the farmer to find out about it. Retribution in the form of locusts brings in the film’s concern with nature, and having it occur when it does brings in the idea of the importance of maintaining illusions, and happiness over truth.
This has been dubbed as one of the most beautiful films of all time, if the most beautiful. Though I clearly have not seen every film out there, I have no trouble believing this statement. It probably helped that I saw the super fancy remastered and remixed for blu-ray Criterion version. This is actually the first film I have ever seen in blu-ray, surprisingly. What a film for my first blu-ray, though. I tried to include more images in this post so y’all could see just how gorgeous this thing is. The majority of it is shot outdoors at the “magic hour” when the sun is just setting or just rising. This lighting makes everything seem, well, magical. The wheat looks as if it’s glowing. The sky is soft. The people in the animals seems to be in harmony (most of the time), moving gracefully through the beautiful landscape. Richard Gere being so young in this movie (it was released in ’78) doesn’t hurt the effect either. It’s not all visuals though, the score is a perfect aural representation of the landscape, but also of the story. It’s beautiful, yes, but also slightly sinister and ominous, just as nature and the characters can be at times.
The dialogue in this film is sparse, but effective. You don’t often hear entire conversations, just enough to get what’s happening. For this reason, I think it’s actually a good thing that Malick chose a such a simple story to make the points he wanted to make. If he had chosen a more complex one I probably would have had no idea what was going on. Besides the images, the narration also helps make up for the film’s lack of dialogue. The best comparison I can come up with for the narration is actually to Beasts of the Southern Wild. Linda is similar to Hushpuppy in the way that she can make startling profound remarks in language that seems all her own. Sometimes it doesn’t have much to do directly with the story, but it’s interesting anyway. It’s more commentary than straight-up narration. Though she never says, you get the feeling that she’s narrating from sometime in the future, but she still sounds like a kid. Is she remembering how she spoke at that time, or is the time she is speaking of merely a few days behind her? Not sure, but there is still this feeling of a peaceful, happy time that will never come back.
Days of Heaven is unlike any other film I have ever seen, and it really makes me want to check some more of Malick’s stuff. There was some camera work in here that I really enjoyed as well, lots of low angle shots and this thing where he swings the camera around someone (I don’t know what the technical term is). The camera would be looking at a character’s face, for example, and then circle around him and end up looking in the direction he was looking. It was very disorienting. I’m not super big into nature or anything, but the images Malick presents here are very compelling no matter how you feel about it. The only problem with this is that I feel really pretentious right now, saying all of this stuff about visuals and everything. The film sort of forces you to be pretentious when you’re talking about it. It sort of overly idealizes the “days of heaven” as well… but they do end so I suppose that’s not too idealistic. I don’t think this film is for everybody necessarily, but film nerds will eat this stuff up. The story is pretty standard, but Malick is able to bring in a lot of other tangential issues that will keep you interested. Plus the film is only ninety minutes long, it’s not a gigantic overblown epic or anything in terms of running time. I’d cautiously suggest this to most people, and definitely recommend it to anyone really interested in film.
“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars