Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven ★★★★★

Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven opens with a credit sequence of sepia-toned old photographs beneath the magical shimmer of Saint-Saens Aquarium from The Carnival of the Animals. It's a beguiling view of a romanticised past that then comes up short against the hard reality of inter-war working conditions in the steel mill furnaces. In quick time we are introduced to hot-headed Bill (Richard Gere) who gets involved in a scuffle that ends with his foreman dead and himself on the run. He takes the train with his little sister, Linda (Linda Manz), and his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams) and a host of seasonal workers, as they travel towards the Texas Panhandle. Once there, they pick up work as part of a team on a large wheat farm and it's not long before they're ensconced in a kind of temporary paradise. While the work is backbreaking, it is a mostly happy time. During their leisure they get to stroll in the fields, and frolic in the river. And this being a Terrence Malick film means the light is always gentle and golden, nature is beautiful, and these hardened souls soften to become a happy part of it.

The owner of the prairie farm (played by Sam Sheppard) lives in a grand house in the fields. He is a shy and wealthy farmer, handsome yet lonely, and as Bill overhears one day, he is also unwell and doesn’t have long to live. Perhaps in his loneliness, or sensing the end of his life, the farmer notices Abby in the fields and takes a distant shine to her. When it comes time for the seasonal workers to move on, he offers for her to stay with him during the fallow season. She is reluctant, but Bill, sensing an opportunity, urges her to agree on the condition that she, Bill and Linda move in together as brothers and sisters.

Bill is tired of “nosing around like a pig in a gutter”. He reasons that the farmer’s “got one foot on a banana skin, and the other on a roller skate”, and it will only be a short time before he is gone; and if, in the meantime, Abby marries him, then they will get their hands on his money and this paradise will be their’s to keep. But their desperate deception inevitably leads to conflict and catastrophe.

The film is confident in its looseness. It proceeds at least as often through mood and impression as it does through narrative. Words are often relegated to second fiddle behind the cinematic poetry of the astonishing visuals, the fluid editing style and its sonorous score. There is relatively little exposition, and two pivotal scenes are played out with the spoken words being barely audible.

These unusual narrative choices also play out through Malick’s characteristic use of voiceover. The point of difference in Days of Heaven is that the voiceover is restricted to Linda, who is not the main character, and being a child, has an uncomprehending view of many things that are going on around her. The effect is to further distance us from the main story. But it works beautifully, like a novelistic device, providing a disarmingly naive perspective on the main characters’ struggles and desires, combined with Linda’s childish wide-eyed wonder at the world.

In place of narrative drive we get a languid flow of gorgeous imagery, with frequent cutaways to nature and a strong evocation of place. The result is a film where you feel the characters’ state of harmony with the land. And yet there is the constant threat of disharmony from Bill’s impetuosity and the chip on his shoulder that is adamant he deserves more. And there's also nature's latent threat, which seems far removed during most of the film, but arrives with biblical fury in the film’s final act. This extended, climactic sequence is, for me, one of the highlights across all of cinema.

I adore how Malick locates Paradise within this prairie heaven. There’s loveliness everywhere. But there’s a worm at the golden heart of it, in the form of Bill’s jealousy and greed. It all amounts to an archetypal story preserved in amber from a forgotten moment in the broad sweep of history. The film explores themes of harmony and hardship, alongside love and mortality; and all within a structure that revels in beauty, but leads towards apocalypse. The entire film is brilliantly staged. It boasts an original score by Ennio Morricone, which builds on the magical shimmer of the Saint-Saens to bathe the film in nostalgia and romance. And it is beyond beautifully filmed by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler in a landmark example of breath-taking cinematography. In all, it is one of the finest examples of ravishingly sensual cinema I’ve ever had the pleasure to see.

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