(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1978)
In God’s Country
After he burst onto the scene with Badlands – a film that suggested a bright new talent, yet easily fit within the parameters of the supposed American New Wave – but before he began working more frequently with the radically structured and intoxicatingly edited films of the present (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life), filmmaker Terrence Malick directed Days of Heaven – a film that at once announced a fully formed and exhilarating aesthetic and forced the man into seclusion following the disappointment of its critical reception. That Malick’s second film has been welcomed back into the fold in hindsight – typically the sole feature of his now seven generally recognized by most as canonical – is not only satisfying to Malick diehards (like myself), but it’s also entirely fitting. For though the film met a rather cool reception in its day, it makes sense that it remains Malick’s most accepted film given its placement in his oeuvre and growth as an artist. It marks a fuller maturation of style that Badlands promised, but it also stands as one of the director’s most accessible. It follows a linear narrative, its minimal plot is structured around the age-old love triangle device, and one character’s expressive voiceover narration ensures that no viewer could miss Malick’s intentions. This seeming adherence to traditionalism and its brief 95-minute runtime might lead those primarily versed in Malick’s later work to label it slight. But, make no mistake; Days of Heaven carries all the signature cinematic heft of the filmmaker’s work – thematically, visually, and aurally. So, what is it about this deceptively simple film that makes it unmistakably a work of its highly divisive director and yet is sung with the highest of praises? For starters, you will never forget what you see.
As with all of Malick’s films, Days of Heaven is breathtakingly beautiful to watch. On a purely visual level alone, it may very well be his most stunning. Before teaming with the remarkable Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick worked with DP Nestor Almendros for his second feature. The pair shot almost exclusively during the “magic hour” shortly after sunrise or at dusk giving the film its radiant, sun-kissed palette. After the three principal characters arrive in the Texan panhandle, the camera obsesses over the golden ocean of wheat swaying like waves in the wind. Whether workers traipse through the stalks or critters scurry about the ground underneath, Malick’s camera rarely leaves the endless rolling fields of gold. Against this backdrop Malick tells his story of turn-of-the-century nomads who head west to find seasonal work during the harvest. Bill (Richard Gere) is possibly on the run from the law after a violent incident at a factory in Chicago, so he convinces his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) to make a break with him. The story takes off slowly as Malick seems more concerned with plunging us into the Texan plains than explicitly setting the main plot in motion – though he does this too, just a bit more subtly. These early moments form the best stretches of the film. Malick unexpectedly captures an “old time” nostalgic America now resigned to myths and legends. There’s a refreshing playfulness to these characters’ daily lives – both adult and child – in a pre-technologically immersed world. Children chase each other through the wheat fields, workers dance around the fire by night, and tap-dancing performers take the stage on wooden platforms. Though the circumstances are far from ideal for these wandering Americans, they find ways to entertain themselves nonetheless. The farmer’s elaborate house is omnipresent, however, a fixture of the background in most early shots, a constant reminder that their lives are first and foremost work before play.
Malick brings the farmer’s home to the forefront as the farmer himself (Sam Shepard) begins spending more time around the pickers – specifically Abby. It becomes obvious that he’s taken a liking to her, and when Bill overhears that the farmer may die within the year due to some unspoken illness, he urges Abby to get closer to him in turn. The farmer’s love only grows, and at Bill’s insistence, Abby agrees to marry him against her better judgment. The story then becomes a waiting game as the lovers, pretending to be siblings, anxiously bide their time until the farmer passes away presumably leaving his wealth to his new bride. Alongside this tangled web of deception and volatile emotions (Bill must grapple with his own idea as it begins to crawl under his skin when he sees Abby and her new husband together, the farmer is uneasy with the relationship these “siblings” share, and Abby remains conflicted over the lie she leads while possibly falling in love with the farmer as well), Malick grants us a window into the thoughts of the film’s youngest character Bill’s sister Linda. Furthering Sissy Spacek’s supplemental narration in Badlands, Linda provides even less anecdotal information and more childlike philosophical ramblings. She knows and sees everything that Bill and Abby do, but she maturely reserves judgment. She strives to enjoy and understand the world, but she also precociously grasps that the line between good and evil is sometimes thinner than we might think.
This tension between good and evil, right and wrong, is no mistake either. Malick’s entire body of work is imbued with a deep sense of religion – more specifically, Christianity. A lot of viewers read a sort of vague pantheistic spiritualism in his films, which, to be fair, makes sense given the amount of screen time (and sometimes even narrative in the case of The New World) he lends to nature and the world around us. From Badlands to To the Wonder, the director has always been concerned with humankind’s relation to the environment. But, there are also undoubtedly Christian undertones (and sometimes more explicitly so as in the case of The Tree of Life) in all of his films. Not much is known about Malick’s personal life, but we do that he comes from an Episcopal background and studied philosophy at both Harvard and Oxford. Whether his faith turned sour and has since influenced his art like Bergman or Dreyer, or he has come to simply accept it like Scorsese’s claim that he’ll always be Catholic, we’ll likely never know and his work doesn’t provide many clues. But, the grappling with faith still remains. With Days of Heaven, the themes are less direct than say The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, or even To the Wonder with that film’s doubting priest, but its brief exploration of morality in the characters of Bill and Abby, told from the naïve perspective of Linda, is welcome and refreshing in a cinema that typically leaves faith on the sidelines or uses it as an easy target for criticism. After the brokenhearted farmer finally discovers the couple’s secret, a swarm of locusts of biblical proportions ravishes the wealthy landowner’s crops. And, when the dry wheat fields catch fire during a scuffle between Bill and the farmer, all the characters’ fates are sealed.
There are no grand sweeping statements on universal morality here, but Malick does seem to suggest what goes around comes around. In the end, his trio must live with the consequences of what they’ve done – Abby especially is full of regret and vows to lead a better life – but he’s also surprisingly nonjudgmental in his denouement. As the three escape the farm on a raft down the river, Linda remarks, “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.” It’s a strange, yet unexpectedly profound close that doesn’t let these characters off the hook (Bill is eventually caught and gunned down), but is surprisingly humanist in its appeal to see the potential good in every person. Sometimes it pays off – Abby gets a second chance; and sometimes it doesn’t – Bill pays the ultimate price for his transgressions. And then there’s Linda. She escapes the boarding house Abby finds for her, makes off with a former friend from the farm, and wanders down the train tracks going nowhere and yet always going somewhere. Out in God’s country there’s always something beautiful to see.