Ben Reiss’s review published on Letterboxd:
After watching Days of Heaven for the first time last night I read Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Essay on the film. It’s an interesting read, in part because it was written back when director Terrance Malick had only made two films. In the 1970’s Malick made Badlands and Days of Heaven, was lauded as one of great new filmmakers, and then went on hiatus for 20 years.
It’s incredible to imagine now because Malick’s style is so well-known to us now in 2021. When I watched Days of Heaven after seeing most of Malick’s work the rolling golden wheat fields bring me back to the open fields of The Thin Red Line. The tender scene of the lovers Bill and Abbey walking in a shallow river near sundown reminded me of the relationships in Knight of Cups. The way that Linda tells a story of the loves of adults is reminiscent of the family-based storytelling in Tree of Life. Malick knew exactly what he was doing back in 1978.
In Ebert’s essay he mentions that the film was well-received - critics praised the unbelievable cinematography by Néstor Almendros that imagines a world where it is always either dawn or dusk. They praised the score by Ennio Morricone that employs variations on the theme of Camille Saint-Säens’ Aquarium (heard in its original format in the opening credits). They praised the imagery of fields and flames and trains and rivers, which with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio fills the screen and engulfs us. But, according to Ebert, contemporary critics criticized the films for its “muted emotions”.
Seen from a 2021 perspective this is an interesting criticism of Malick’s work. We now know that Malick does not tell stories in the traditional sense. He shies away from advancing his films using scenes where the actors express their characters’ thoughts and feeling through grand gestures and dialogues. Instead he focuses on the images around the characters. We see the characters lost in wheat fields, jungles, beaches, or urban LA depending on the film. They interact in symbolic ways on screen while a voiceover (done here by Linda Manz in her role as the kid sister) makes poetic observations to spurn our imagination and help us understand what is going on.
I can see why this made audiences in 1978 think that Malick was keeping the emotions of the characters at arm’s length, but I don’t see it that was at all. The passions at play in the love triangle in Days of Heaven are perfectly clear even though they aren’t explicitly shown. This is because Malick gives us space to use our own imaginations and plug our own experiences into the film. When we see a shot of Bill looking up at a lit window where his lover Abbey is sleeping with her husband we know exactly how he feels. When Abbey is torn between a jealous but passionate lover and a caring husband we understand the dichotomy. When we see Bill and Abbey forces to sneak around and hide their love we know the exhilaration and fear that they feel. Terrence Malick knows that we know these feelings and his films give us the space to meet him in the middle. While Malick tells his story we are given a place to reflect on our own experiences.
Something I’m first noticing now is how hopeless Malick’s films tend to be about humanity. Relationships fail and people get hurt. The Nazis win in A Hidden Life, Badlands ends with prison, and here in Days of Heaven the forces of jealousy and rage win out over love and family. But Malick’s films never have a hopeless tone. The beauty of those sunsets and wheat fields is too overwhelming to the point where it very nearly blankets over the tragedy entirely. The human failures of Malick’s films are presented like memories - the passions are strongly felt but they are relegated to our past where the pain can be processed safely. Malick seems to be teaching us that by synthesizing the emotions and lessons of our memories with the natural beauty of the world we can experience some type of spiritual growth. We may not have uncovered the thesis until his later films, but it was there all along.