Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven ★★★★★


Days of Heaven opens not with moving images, but with black-and-white photographs depicting a period in the United States that seems so far in our past that when we look further into the country’s history, we realize that the 1910s are not some hazy dream but something semi-modern; these images contain looming buildings that seem to reach the sky, men playing baseball in an alleyway, a woman draped in a white sheet (presumably getting married), Woodrow Wilson tipping his hat towards a crowd of Americans, and the children of the period – some looking at the camera startled, some smoking a cigarette, some playing a schoolyard game. The last image of this opening is of Linda Manz: the image of Manz conveys so much as to what the film is about – her blank stare, her crouched position, the frown. We are stepping foot into a film that explores many ideas, but perhaps the principal idea is innocence, or the lost of it. The photos are all set against a backdrop not of the wheat fields but of buildings: several times do we see the transition of buildings or Capitalists or politicians and then the face of a victim.

In the film, Malick follows four characters – Bill, Abby, Linda (also our narrator), and The Farmer – and each moment we are given a chance to explore each character is a moment revealing some sort of vulnerability that ties back into the ideas of innocence and naïve; feeling isolated, empty, alone. One of the key elements that helps convey this idea that Days of Heaven is a lonely picture is the swift transition from the city landscape of Chicago, Illinois to the Texas Panhandle surrounded by wheat and nothing else. Malick alludes to so much in his landscapes in his work – there is no question of that when viewing his work – but in Days of Heaven, it may reach a peak: the opening in Chicago establishes Bill and Abby’s desire to adapt to the Capitalistic hellhole – as we know, Bill flubs it up after accidentally killing his boss in a heated argument. Their retreat to the Texas Panhandle reveals both a comforting chance to start anew and also a chance to break away from modernity. Let’s face it: wheat does not equal steel. The change in landscape provides hope – as we see later in the film, characters change and ruin their paradise.

In the vastness of nothing, it causes people to think. The beauty of Days of Heaven is soon tainted by ideas of profiting: the same people Bill was disgusted by (but more importantly, jealous by) in the beginning of the film is now sharing similar thoughts with him. Once he learns that The Farmer, the man he and Abby and Linda are working for, is dying and has an attraction towards Abby, he plots to collect his wealth – Abby, introduced as Bill’s sister, is to marry The Farmer and wait around until he dies. Everyone is striving to achieve peace and happiness – Malick establishes early on the unfortunate tragedy that Man must make their wealth in order for it to happen – and Bill has become corrupt by these ideas: he’s willing to sell one of the two things he loves most in order for all of them to be completely happy. Abby complies with his plan, but reluctantly: she understands that it’s wrong but she needs to survive just as much as Bill does. Believing that wealth and power mends internal pain and unease is clearly proven wrong in Days of Heaven. Malick sets up a dichotomy between Bill and The Farmer because both men desire something that the other has: Bill has love and tosses it away in hopes he can be financially set while The Farmer has every bit of wealth he can acquire but is more than willing to take a chance on love. We have a man attempting to achieve the dream of his prey and ignores the truth in what that life will bring.

If you need more convincing on the tragedy of the film, look no further than Linda Manz’ narration. Her narration – naïve ramblings (yet incredibly haunting and prophetic) of a child – provides the perfect emphasis on what is being lost in this vast land. Part of it is simple: Linda is a child and being a child, it seems that she’s not really capable of comprehending everything that she observes on-screen – but the beauty of the narration is that it shows that Linda’s chosen to process the information that surrounds her in such a way that ultimately makes sense to her and provides evidence of her awareness of the problems. She is our main character: not Bill or Abby or The Farmer – it's her. Because ultimately, she’s the one who loses the most: her brother, her “sister,” the comfort living that The Farmer provided, and her childhood. The final shot is her wandering with a woman whom she met on The Farmer’s land and she expresses the uncertainty in what her life will be like. So much is lost in the film, make no mistake: Bill loses Abby’s love, Abby loses stability, The Farmer loses trust. Linda loses the most; while Bill rots in a river, Abby spontaneously boards a train heading out for World War I, and The Farmer is buried on his land, Linda walks towards the unknown facing away from us, which is juxtaposed with the headshot we see in the opening, a cold and blank stare at the camera. Maybe in reality, she’s lost nothing in the film because she’s lost it all already.

As of now, this is my favorite film of all-time.

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