After receiving much praise for his first film, Badlands, Terrence Malick set about working on his next project, Days Of Heaven, in 1976. Telling the story of itinerant workers who flee Chicago and end up working on a farm on the Texas Panhandle, it was a troubled production that would see Malick spend over two years in the editing suite, trying to draw a movie out of the vast amount of footage he had amassed.
Eventually he crafted (with the help of his crew, of course) a light, airy film that – despite many negative reviews on release – cemented the director’s name as one of America’s leading arthouse filmmakers; Malick picked up the Prix de la Mise en Scene (Best Director award) at Cannes when the film was eventually released in 1978, while principal photographer Nestor Almendros would win an Oscar for the cinematography (though in actual fact over half of the finished film was shot by Haskell Wexler, who Almendros approached to complete work on the project when production overran and he left to begin work on a prior commitment – Francois Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women; despite being given a credit, Wexler was apparently so put out by the fact he was snubbed by the Academy he sat in a cinema and timed the scenes that he had shot with a stopwatch, sending Roger Ebert a letter confirming the amount).
With his second film Malick revisited certain themes that he initially explored with Badlands, albeit using a slightly different tone: like its predecessor, Days Of Heaven is a tale about doomed romance and murder, following a young male criminal on the run with his girlfriend in tow, though rather than being set in the present day it is set in 1916. The director decided to again examine the dynamic between rich and poor Americans, and there is a similar fascination with the natural world, specifically the connection between people and the land (Malick’s imagery highlights man’s carelessness and flippancy towards nature here). The latter clearly still interests Malick greatly today.
The story is a simple one. At the very start of the film a young man named Bill (Richard Gere) is seen working in a Chicago steel mill. He gets into an argument with his foreman, though most of their dialogue is obscured by the pounding of giant machines, and accidentally kills him after the row escalates into a fight. Forced to flee Chicago with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz), the trio are next seen on a train to Texas, where upon arrival they undertake seasonal work for a young, wealthy and painfully shy farmer (the multi-talented Sam Shepard). After Bill hears that the farmer is suffering from a terminal illness, he persuades his own girlfriend to marry the landowner while he poses as her brother, so that the two will eventually inherit the farm business. As time goes by the farmer’s condition remains stable, however, and Abby begins to genuinely fall for the man she is trying to con.
The cast is small. Most of the film is set on the farm, aside from the prologue in Chicago and a brief epilogue, and Malick uses only ten or so main players. The rest of the cast are extras posing as farm workers, beautifully dotted around the landscape in a way that is supposed to look random, but is as perfect as you would expect from a meticulous director that treats each shot with same level of importance.
Most of Days Of Heaven – particularly the external scenes – were shot during ‘magic hour’ – the hour of the day just after sunset where the light ensures a golden hue. (Almendros says the term ‘magic hour’ is “a euphemism, because it’s not an hour but around 25 minutes at the most. It is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it. It limited us to around twenty minutes a day, but it did pay on the screen. It gave some kind of magic look, a beauty and romanticism”.) Shooting at this time each day, and matching shots, required a great deal of organization and no little patience on behalf of the cast and crew (not to mention the suits at Paramount). However, the results of this laborious process are there for all to enjoy; Days Of Heaven is a cinematographic masterpiece, and the work of Almendros and Wexler has been rightly celebrated. It is difficult to think of many films that look quite as good as this one, and allied with the slow plot and Ennio Morricone’s magical score, the film has a certain meditative quality. Watching it is as relaxing as taking a warm bath.
Unfortunately behind the scenes, during production, things were not quite so calm. Many working on the film perceived Malick as cold and distant, and after two weeks of shooting the director – disheartened by his dailies – scrapped everything that had been made and started afresh, apparently exasperating the cast and crew. When helicopters were rented for one pivotal scene (in order to drop thousands and thousands of peanut shells onto the fields from above, which would resemble a plague of locusts on screen), Malick decided he would rather shoot period cars instead, keeping the helicopters on hold at great additional expense.
In the editing suite, Malick took an age to come up with a final cut. The director made a breakthrough when he began experimenting with a voiceover by the character Linda (which is at times similar to that provided by Sissy Spacek’s character Holly in Badlands). According to the film’s editor Billy Weber, Malick subsequently dispensed with much of the existing dialogue. In the released version, Malick’s principal three actors say fewer words in total than the film’s narrator; as with Malick’s recent work, dialogue is often seemingly less important than the visual language on screen. Regularly in Days Of Heaven we see characters speaking, but we are unable to actually hear what they are saying. Even when we are able to hear the actors, the sound recording is either poor or they are deliberately mumbling under orders from the director; either way the speech is often incoherent. It is a stylistic choice that frustrated critics and moviegoers in the 1970s, and while there is a greater critical understanding of the director’s intentions with this type of decision today, it’s still an element that puts a lot of people off Malick’s films.
Personally, I enjoy it. It is a bold choice to deliberately reduce the importance of dialogue, rejecting convention, and I like bold choices. It certainly doesn’t ruin the film, and instead it serves to enhance the visuals, aiding with the creation of a very dreamy atmosphere. The dialogue blows around in the wind just like the film’s ever-present wheat. Writing here the critic Chris Wisniewski points out: “Those rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light; the striking use of music – here is a filmmaker with a clear sensibility and aesthetic who makes narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion, and idea through image and sound.”
The slow pace is perfect, a dreamy unrushed antithesis to the generic rat-a-tat pace of the majority of films today; work and life on the farm is given lots of screen time early on, and the plot almost stays still for much of this segment. The film has a fluid structure: short scenes are used in montage sequences that roughly signify the passing of the seasons. A dusting of snow appears to show the onset of winter, the workers return in the early Spring, we move on to harvest time, and so on. We spend the entire film waiting for a seemingly inevitable tragedy to catch up with Bill and Abby – they have that doomed look about them – in the same way that they are waiting for the farmer’s inevitable death. (Though, when it comes, it is sharply different to what is expected – the violent acts of Days Of Heaven, again like Badlands, are rendered quickly and they are surprising.) It is a film about patience, and it requires a patient viewer.
I watched this film two weeks ago, and while I was impressed with it then I’ve had a nagging feeling ever since that something about it bothered me, and I think that’s the fact that the actors really don’t have all that much to do. Considering this is a tale of love, murder and deception (and one that is packed with dramatic biblical imagery, to boot), there is little emotion on show from the cast – though Shepard’s controlled anger as his character slowly discovers the truth about Bill and Abby is powerful and believable. Gere, who is supposed to be wrestling with jealousy while he watches Abby gradually fall for the farmer, barely lets any of his feelings out until the locusts arrive and a subsequent explosion of violence means he must flee once again (except for a couple of sideways glances and brief conversations with Abby, which are half-heard and seem to interest Malick less than those stunning vistas of golden wheatfields). While it is easy to accept the character is a fly-by-night con-man, it’s harder to accept that he is capable of murder, despite the actions on screen by the character to the contrary.
Still, this is a beautiful film to watch, and to immerse oneself in, a celebration of the moving image and the widescreen beauty of the American countryside (two early scenes showing trains rattling along the tracks, for example, are quite simply majestic). Though Malick’s style still divides opinion today, Days Of Heaven is rightly regarded as one of the 20th Century’s most striking cinematic achievements. The director, exhausted by the experience, supposedly moved to Paris and would not make another film until The Thin Red Line, nearly twenty years.later.
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, Linda Manz, Sam Shepard
Running Time: 95 Minutes