ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Have fun with your orgasm while watching Days of Heaven."
Yeah, that just about covers it. It's no secret that Malick's Days of Heaven is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, the movie is so overwhelming visually that some otherwise talented critics seem to have forgotten what their job is and resorted to complaining that the film doesn't neatly fit into established genre conventions. I know it's unfair to pick on the outliers in a situation like this, but when the most negative review of a film uses phrases like "people are carefully arranged, frames are carefully composed" and "fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques" to describe why they don't like it, I know it's going to be right up my alley. I'm not saying you ought to like Days of Heaven—even I have my issues with it—it just feels like critiquing a comedy for having too many jokes. This is American arthouse, pure and simple, and I'll take this over generic cinema any day of the week.
To some extent, Malick's touch is actually quite simple. There's the nostalgic romance of his voice-over narration and the delicate serenity of his montages. But what really struck me here was his effortless control of atmosphere. This type of film is so wonderful because it has the ability to take me mentally and emotionally back to the classroom and make me feel like I'm learning about film all over again. Shot 1: newlyweds sharing a bed for the first time; shot 2: a leaf shivering in a cold rain. Shot 1: lovers discuss their relationship; shot 2: a flock of birds flies off screen. These simple juxtapositions communicate more to the audience than any amount of dialogue or action ever could, and for that Days of Heaven stands apart from the vast majority of Hollywood cinema.
I'm fascinated by the decision to have the story narrated from the point of view of the younger sister Linda, easily the member of the family least involved in the broad arc of the narrative. She acts as a surrogate for the audience by standing apart, but seeing the story through her eyes distances us from the emotional impact of the romance. Returning to her commentary about being a "mud doctor" to "check out the Earth" and that "the Devil was on the farm" takes what would otherwise be a rather small story about a love triangle crossing class boundaries and makes it into something bigger. Linda's perspective gives everything a more universal quality by returning from the specific to the general: not just a few farm hands, but the Earth; not just a small conflict, but the Devil. She elevates the story into something which reaches towards an emotional kernel of humanity.
With all that said, part of me does wish that the story had a little more complexity to it. It's more beautifully told than any romance or period piece I've ever seen, but its critics do have a point when they say it could be more substantive. For me there are elements which largely make up for this lack though, and I have a feeling Days of Heaven may soon be entering my collection of all-time personal favorite movies.