But no amount of rumors, fable, and technical detail – indeed, no amount of writing – can offer any clue of what it’s like to actually watch Days of Heaven. Even its fiercest detractors concur that its one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. It is a romantic epic with little dialogue, a period piece almost devoid of historical detail, and an intensely emotional tragedy where the most important images don’t include humans at all.
Now Days of Heaven has been reissued as part of the Criterion Collection, and while all the above arguments and contradictions may resurface, at least people will be watching this movie again and revisiting its singular beauty. Malick’s recent movies (1998’s The Thin Red Line and 2005’s The New World) showed that critical appreciation of his unique aesthetic hadn’t flagged during his two-decade absence, and now we have a new transfer of his masterpiece, a film that stands alone even in his impressive body of work.
“Pretentious” is a word that gets tossed around a lot during discussions of this film, usually by people who take offense with its lugubrious pacing, sparse dialogue, and third-reel biblical imagery. “Melodramatic” is another one, usually in regard to the soap-opera plot: In 1916, Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) land jobs as itinerant farmers on a wealthy landowner’s plantation. The Farmer (Sam Shepard) falls in love with Abby when he sees her from a distance, and he asks them to stay on at the farm. Bill knows that The Farmer suffers from an unnamed fatal disease and won’t live more than a year, and he tells Abby that she should go along with the seduction so they can inherit his wealth and land when he dies. They marry, but Abby actually falls in love with her new husband and the poor guy doesn’t die as quickly as assumed. Jealousy erupts. Things don’t end well for anyone involved.
All this in ninety minutes, mind you, and the last twenty are dominated by a plague of locusts, the workers’ destructive attempts to burn the bugs away, and two fights to the death. There’s also very little dialogue, none of which could be called expository. So while the story is high melodrama, the plot is merely a device (an empty Christmas tree?) upon which Malick heaps image after image that, along with the voiceover, constantly undermine the human emotion by showing how it barely registers among the grandeur of the natural world.
The voiceover is that of Bill’s little sister Linda as she watches the doomed love triangle emerge, and she couldn’t be more emotionally detached. Like most Malick voiceovers, hers never rises above a soft conversational tone, and her voice even disappears from the film for long stretches at a time. Linda is ultimately left to fend for herself as part of the early-twentieth century’s peripatetic working class, and in the final scene we watch her starting over with a new companion; suddenly we’re not so sure she was truly related to Bill at all. The supposedly epic drama is revealed as only an episode in a young girl’s life, perhaps even embellished by her memory and youthful romanticism.
And yet the inversion happens throughout the film, through Malick’s justly lauded visuals. While the locusts appear to be penance for the characters’ sins, there is no easily identifiable good or evil force in Days of Heaven. Bill is too impulsive, too sadly desperate, to be the film’s hero. The Farmer does little but suffer throughout, but our sympathy for him is undercut by his fabulous wealth and the fact that he lords over a rotating stock of penniless immigrant workers. Shepard and Gere even look similar in the film, particularly in their hairstyles, which leads me to suspect that Malick saw these characters as two sides of the same coin – one a failure and the other a success within the same capitalist framework.
The men’s muted brown costumes also blend them into the scenery, not that it takes much. In Days of Heaven the natural world looms so large and so beautifully above the human action that the final scene’s revelation of human insignificance is mere literalizing. Bill spends both of his jobs manipulating natural resources, either shoveling coal or scything wheat in small attempts to get some money. Malick routinely cuts to stationary shots of a burbling stream or a silent landscape, and the locusts that descend on the farm are shot in extraordinary close-ups that show their features as clearly as the movie’s human faces. The key to these images is their stillness; the calmness of the clouds, the silence of windblown wheat, and even the emotionless insect faces all serve as serene counterpoints to the excessive human conflict on the farm, as if Earth can dismiss the characters’ problems with the same shrugging nonchalance that Linda displays at film’s end.
If this all sounds pretentious and garbled, or like National Geographic parading as neo-Transcendentalism, then be thankful we have a new release of the film to argue over. More importantly, though, we have this beautiful film to watch, to get lost in.