Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven ★★★★★

Original Grade: 2.5 Stars
Rewatch Grade: 5 Stars 

What a difference 20-odd years make when viewing a film. It appears they can easily drift from overrated to masterpiece when viewing through the ever-warping lens of time. 

I remember anxiously running to the local corner video store to try and find this after first viewing Badlands in my early 20s. This was my old Rendezview Video days where nearly every night I would try to grab a 70s classic or some random 90s indie movie with Parker Posey in it. Rushing back to my tiny room in an old pink house on Como Avenue just north of the University of Minnesota campus. The salad days of renting Raging Bull for the first time and going to see shit like John Sayles’ Lone Star by myself at the old Har Mar mall movie theater. 

The point being I was a pompous pseudo-film student and I would hype films up in my mind, then be viciously disappointed when I finally watched them (Fargo was also one of the films I angrily chastised as “overrated” upon first viewing).
So I despised Days of Heaven for decades because I was sorely let down when I first viewed it...and also when I tried it again after watching Malick’s comeback The Thin Red Line in 1998. Words cannot describe the gushing that was in effect by my film professor when it was announced the great Terry Malick was making another film after 20 years.

So cut to last night, I watched this on a whim because I didn’t want to yet commit to Malick’s most recent A Hidden Life due to the ponderous 3 hour run time. I was simply blown away. This may be the perfect Malick film - it’s a scant 1 HR and 34 Minutes in length. It gregariously uses voiceover and tight editing to tell a terrific turn of the century morality play. A dusty sketch that is as much of a lark as it is something of enormous weight. A perfect companion piece to Badlands.

As most people already know there are two things going for this film that lift it into a higher plane of cinematic relevance. The outrageously beautiful cinematography and one of the most enchanting film scores ever written by Ennio Moriccone. These two things continue to delight and wash over you long after the film is over. The sheer difficulty of shooting most of these scenes for 20 minutes a day at magic hour sans any studio lights is so far gone from reality I can’t even comprehend it (especially since I’ve tried to fumble around with a minor photography hobby the last year or so). Every single shot is composed within the frame like a museum quality painting. It’s like Malick took the “scarecrow” shot of Martin Sheen and the moon from Badlands and repurposed it for an entire film. Perhaps that’s what spoke to me so much - like one of my favorite films of all time, Barry Lyndon, this beautiful birds-eye view of humanity is just something you don’t see anymore. It’s unflinching in Kubrickian sensibility, and could easily come off as cold and callous. The “humans as sophisticatedly dumb beasts” motif if you will.

This brings me to my initial problems with the film. The lack of plot and the lack of nuanced acting performances. I believe at the time I just really hated Richard Gere. I simply would not except that he would be in a classic film and pull it off. Especially after the garbage he was doing in that mid 90s to early 2000s era. Anyone remember Sommersby? Or First Knight? Or god forbid cinema’s nadir Dr. T and the Women? My 22 yr old mind simply could not accept Gere. He did not compute. Furthermore I did not know any of the other actors in the film at the time, including the great Sam Shepard or the decrepitly glorious Robert J. Wilke as the farm foreman. 

Shepard’s “The Farmer” is a master class in stoicism. Glowering down upon the peasants from his proverbial mansion on the hill. He has the uncanny looks of a young Denis Leary, the simmering menace of a young Wilem Dafoe, and the innocence of a lost puppy. The mansion itself also becomes a character, in an almost Hitchcockian Psycho homage. It lurks at the fringe of every perfectly composed frame like a specter of the disproportionate weight between the classes. All the while the topography of Wilke’s craggy face looks on in deadpan horror as Gere and his women infest “The Farmer’s” pastoral paradise. 

The thing I like about Malick’s films is they take a wide enough angle on the human condition so that they continue to resonate for years. Whenever I watch one of his films I find something deeply personal within myself or within the world as a whole that I didn’t see before. With Heaven I am seeing a strong whiff of 2020. The Grand Canyon crater-wide gap between rich and poor is the most obvious one. The 2nd one is the ghost of Woodrow Wilson which permeates the period. This was a president who also completely ignored a pandemic because of pure American exceptionalism. Just replace Trump’s relentless pursuit of the Stock Market with Wilson’s pursuit of War. The Farmer and his friends literally doing nothing between harvest seasons but goofing off with their money, all the while con men lurk beneath the surface and a plague infiltrates their paradise and burns it to the ground. Wilson anonymously whistle stopping across the panhandle to view his greatness while the oblivious gang waves and yells is the lynchpin of the entire film. It’s all down hill from there. 

Many of Malick’s films tend to amplify human folly vs. nature elements (The Thin Red Line, The New World). However, none of them fulfill this promise in such a stark, succinct way as this film does. We feel as if we are on the edge of time and yet everything that descends upon these poor people is still lurking out our front doors more than a century later.

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