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Days of Terrence Malick (Part 3): Days of Heaven (1978)

Ok, so it took me a little longer than I’d anticipated to get to the next installment in my “Days of Terrence Malick” series, looking back at the films of this acclaimed director.  Re-watching The Thin Red Line (read my review here) made me want to watch the two films that Mr. Malick made in the 1970’s: Badlands (read my review here) and Days of Heaven. Both films are considered masterpieces by many, and I was eager to finally see them.

In Days of Heaven, a young and very handsome Richard Gere plays Bill, a poor worker forced to flee his steel-mill job in Chicago after he knocks down his boss in a moment of anger.  So he and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and young sister (Linda Manz) hop a train out of the city.  The threesome eventually find themselves in the Texas panhandle, where they find work (along with hundreds of other migrant laborers) in the wheat fields of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard, who I’ll always associate with his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff).  The farmer takes a liking to Abby, and Bill urges her to move in with him, so that the three of them can take advantage of the farmer’s wealth.  Needless to say, things don’t turn out well for anyone involved.

There is very little dialogue in Days of Heaven. At times it feels like a silent movie, or a tone poem in which the beautiful imagery is called upon to carry the weight of the story.  There are moments in Days of Heaven in which Mr. Malick is able to harness the awesome power of cinema to create some truly breathtaking moments, all the more notable for their near-total lack of dialogue or narrative exposition.  There are long stretches in which the film lets the absolutely gorgeous shots of the rural Texas landscape carry the viewer along, and I found myself endlessly fascinated by the scenes showing the men and women hard at work harvesting wheat.  Those moments have a poetic beauty that surprised me.  Then, most notably, there is the sequence, late in the film, in which a fire spreads through the farmer’s wheat fields, eventually building to a mighty conflagration.  The escalation of this sequence is incredible and terrifying, a bravura achievement.

And yet so much of the film feels to me as if Mr. Malick was purposely trying to make his film difficult to understand.  I continually found myself struggling to understand the dynamics between the characters, or the simple set-ups of what was going on.  Bill and Abby make a decision, in the early minutes of the film, to pretend that they are brother and sister, rather than lovers.  I have no idea why.  I can understand the biblical parallels this gives the film (to the stories of Abraham pretending that his wife Sarah was his sister), but I have no understanding of why the characters make this choice.  And that’s a big problem, because that choice leads to the farmer’s seeing Abby as an available woman, which leads to the main drama in the story.  But it all seems silly rather than tragic, because I can’t fathom a reason why Bill and Abby would have kept their relationship a secret, so the drama all seems so easily avoided.

But my lack of understanding of the film’s basic set-up goes even deeper than that.  I had thought, all through watching the film, that Bill and Abby were married, not just in a relationship.  Furthermore, I thought that Linda was really their daughter, and they were only pretending that she was Bill’s sister.  But in reading about the film, subsequently, it seems that I was mistaken on both counts.  Now, since Terrence Malick is considered a master filmmaker, I guess that just makes me an obtuse idiot, but I think I’m a decently savvy film-viewer.  That I so fundamentally misunderstood these key character relationships in the film leads me to feel that Mr. Malick went too far in eliminating so many of the basic devices generally used to tell a story in a film.  I think just a little more effort to clarify some of the character set-ups at the start of the film would have made the drama to follow far more powerful.

I can admire the gorgeous cinematography (by Cuban Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler), and I can compliment the layers of biblical parallel (when a film begins with a man pretending his lover is his sister, a la Abraham and Sarah, and ends with a plague of locusts, one knows the filmmakers have more in mind than a simple pastoral love-story).  I can wrestle with the film’s central moral dilemma, and I can consider the film’s complex musings about urban versus rural life.  All these are things that lead me to respect the hell out of Days of Heaven. But I’m afraid I can’t really say that I liked it all that much.

This leaves me with two more Terrence Malick films that I haven’t seen: The Tree of Life, which was released earlier this year and which really interests me, and The New World, which was released in 2005 and which does not interest me at all.  I’m going to get to both of these films, eventually, but in the coming days I’m going to begin a retrospective series focusing on another filmmaker.  It’s been a ton of fun so far, and I’m eager to share this with you all, so keep your eyes peeled for that to kick off in the coming days!

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