Returning after six years, a relatively short time-frame for him, Terrence Malick delivered his sophomore film, Days of Heaven. As strong as his debut Badlands was, who would have expected a film as accomplished as Days of Heaven turned out to be? It is widely considered to be the most beautifully shot film of all time. However, I would say it has much more to offer than just its visuals.
The story follows Bill, played by Richard Gere, and his girlfriend Abby, played by Brooke Adams, as they travel with his young sister to America’s panhandle. The film has an unlikely plot, which switches from a story about a down-on-their-luck couple to a dark love triangle. Playwright and non-actor at the time, Sam Shepard plays the owner of a farm the couple work on. He soon falls in love with Abby, and the love triangle begins from there.
It is hard to call this film unconventional as it is very much in the style of old-fashioned grand scale epics. That being said, it transcends the trappings of the Hollywood epic with several distinct choices. The most apparent is the dialogue, which does not feel stilted or written, instead, natural, down-to-earth and realistic.
The film is known for its beautiful cinematography by Nestor Almendros. Film critic Roger Ebert said about Days of Heaven “above all, one of the most beautiful films ever made” something critics and film fans alike agree on. It is the thing you notice immediately about the film after the almost silent opening sequence, we quickly enter the beautiful vast vistas of America’s panhandle. Unless you have seen a Malick film before, it is hard to be prepared for the beauty that he shows us. Each scene, each shot in fact, begs to be longer. With filming almost exclusively done at the “golden hour” before the sun rises or sets, Days of Heaven has a look unlike any other.
That being said, the emotional integrity of the film has often been criticized, people saying it is more about the images then it is about the characters or emotion. I would have agreed to a point after the first time I saw the film, however, after repeat viewings you realize why this is. The film is narrated from the naive perspective of Linda, played by newcomer Linda Marz. Linda is Bill’s sister, and is just a child. It is through her eyes that we see the film, giving us a child’s perspective. We don’t see the full feelings on screen, only what she understands of them.
“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.” This line, delivered halfway through by Linda Marz, describes both her character and the film. It is naive, just like she is. She doesn’t understand why people do certain things, why they act the way they do. We often see her in the distance watching as these emotional confrontations take place – we understand of them as she does. Everything is very simple to her, black and white, and these adults are acting in ways she cannot understand.
While the ending is anything but a happy one, you can’t leave this film feeling sad or depressed. The beauty of the cinematography keeps this sadness from being overwhelming as you feel so moved from what you have just seen. Terrence Malick has produced a truly timeless film and not once does it show its age. This timelessness is the true sign of a classic and that is what Malick’s Days of Heaven is. I hope that one day it is as widely viewed and accepted alongside “classics” such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, as I believe this film more than deserves it.