DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
So there it is, my final Malick. This was the only one I hadn't seen and it is my favourite. By far.
After seeing the Tree of Life I was sure that nothing could surpass that experience and I'm still sure of that as it is such a unique film. But Days of Heaven's narrative driven structure and awe inspiring dedication (and perhaps a lot less megalomania) make it a film that appeals to all senses, sensitivities and even the smallest iota of passion you might have within yourself for the medium.
This dedication shows perhaps most in Malick's decision to shoot practically everything during the Golden Hour. Delaying the shooting schedule by months, having your cast wait for hours on end, all for that perfect image, that perfect shine, that perfect feel. Add to that two years of editing and the final result is something that should perhaps be called a perfect piece of film, created by a seemingly obsessive perfectionist.
There is just no escape from the beauty of this film. With his trademark, contemplative pacing we are witness to the simplest of tragedies that has been told thousands of times before. The love triangle. With as a backdrop the golden wheat fields, we get to see the mundane in an almost spiritual way. Malick succeeds in adding depth to the story by the way he carefully constructs his images. Each scene feels like a thoughtfully constructed painting, giving life to everything in it. Malick's later films often seem to distance his audience from the experience, often making it an intellectual affair rather than an emotional one. Here, his last film before his break from making films, he strikes the perfect balance.
There is heartbreaking loneliness here, longing, lust for a person you want to be with but can't because of your own stupidity. The constant struggle between loving someone and slowly falling for another. Again, this is nothing new, but the way the story is presented to us is a thing of overwhelming beauty. Amidst all this heartbreak and passion is the lone voice of a child with a somewhat broken mind. The ever present voice over in Malick's films usually emphasize, explore or heighten the sensation or meaning of a scene, but here we are sometimes given explanations, sometimes observations, but more often than not we are given slices of the world that do not always pertain to what we are seeing, but always to what seems to lie at the centre of this story.
We are all alone. No matter how hard we try, we are all alone. And within ourselves we harness both right and wrong. It is through our actions and interactions that we become who we are, but we make these decisions on our own. Like our narrator says:”Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you." But life is also movement and that is something that Richard Gere's character embodies. He is very much alive, viscerally so. There is unease in him and his energy sweeps his sister (the narrator) and his object of affection along with him in a constant search for the next place. When they settle to work in those wheat fields his unease doesn't leave him, but his traveling companions seem to find a certain anchor, a willingness to stop moving. For, as alone as we are, our need for companionship is always greater. Being alone with people around you always seems to be the more bearable option. From this feeling comes the conflict and the ensuing love triangle, a triangle that always feels as if it will be resolved in the worst most possible way, as the biggest half-devil of them all, jealousy always wins out in the end. And in the end, we all end up on our own again.
Malick creates an allegorical layer within this story that has an unmistakable biblical feel to it. Starting with the title of course, and going on from there to a plague of Locusts, many references to beasts and the devil and a destructive and deadly cleansing fire, it almost feels as if Malick wanted to give us a secular version of paradise, ultimately destroyed by the fallacies of man, much like the biblical Adam and Eve story. The golden glow in which this film is drenched certainly makes it feel heavenly. The contrast between the harsh working conditions and the moments of bliss seem to emphasize the power and beauty of nature, a thing that we are dependent on and should never take for granted. We can create Paradise for ourselves, but it is within our nature to destroy it as well.
After completing his filmography I can only hope that Malick has more films like this in him. As much as I love and admire the intellectual musings of his two latest films, Days of Heaven represents to me just how amazing a director he is. I'm not going to say it's perfect, but to me it is.