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Days of Heaven

February 21, 2016

Days of Heaven (1978)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

Days-of-Heaven-034.jpg (280×157)

Synopsis: Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) flee the steelworks of Chicago, to forge a living as seasonal workers on a large, edenic farmstead in rural Texas.

Review: One of the most achingly beautiful films ever made, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven almost succeeds in transcending the medium. It certainly seems closer to a silent movie or even a visual tone poem than it is a dramaturgically conventional piece of cinema.

Right from its first few moments, the film draws you in to what is essentially its key poetic lure and mandate: that the story is to be understood through the senses and ‘feeling’ rather than exegesis. Malick moves from the expert montage of faded, old photographs (imprinting the film’s central theme of elegy), to an impressionistic sequence which sketches in Bill’s troubles in a Chicago steelwork (there’s no dialogue, the scene is more about image and the hellish ‘pitch’ of the whole place, a catalyst in driving Bill and his little ‘family’ to their halcyonic days in Texas.)

From here, Malick compels his protagonists onto the idea of Fitzgerald’s “vast obscurity beyond the city…the dark fields of the republic”, and Malick along with DP Nestor Almendros conjure some of the most magical images in cinema. So much of the scenery resembles wondrous oil paintings, especially in the way Almendros captures the beauty of the changing shades of the sky; however, this isn’t simply a case of aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake, but Malick is always endeavouring to make the story speak through the image, namely how the transience of the people and the narrative politics that fill the frame are always dwarfed by the epic, translucent magnificence of nature around it.

Malick’s choice of voiceover from the young and dreamy Linda (a ‘child’s eye view’, if you like) perfectly compliments this theme of detachment: her seemingly callow insights are actually immeasurably poignant and help decontextualise the smallness of the emotional wranglings of the three adults and place it in more of a wistful, ‘eternal’ tenor. Under a different director, this film could have been realised as a fraught, soapy melodrama, but the genius of Malick is that he transcends mere genre to make an overarching commentary on landscape, mortality, temporality and man/machine versus nature.

Days of Heaven also features one of the great female cinematic performances of all-time, and it’s an incarnation of dignity and grace to rank alongside the marvellous Natalia Samoilova in Michail Kalotozov’s The Cranes are Flying. Despite the presence of the estimable personas of Richard Gere and Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams simply radiates a form of mature luminescence in her role as the ‘woman in the middle’, and the way she responds to Shepard’s farmer’s awkward confession of love is so utterly heartbreaking and truthful in the wonderful line, “well that’s a lovely thing to say.”

Days of Heaven may also represent the peak moment of Malick’s career where he had the perfect blend of his respectful command of narrative and storytelling (brilliantly essayed in his debut film, Badlands) versus the more abstract submission to a cinema of the senses that we saw in his later work. For a man who has made seven outstanding feature films, to even suggest that this one may be the best is high praise, but it’s difficult to overstate just how rich, beautiful, emotional and masterly a work it is. (February 2016)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2016 12:30 am

    I agree with your excellent review of the film, Patrick. Next to Tree of Life, this is my own next favourite film of Malick’s to date. Still to see Knight of Cups, but have seen all the others. Let me know what you think of KoC when you get a chance to see it. Looking forward to reading your review of it.

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  1. Malick Films Ranked | Patrick Nabarro

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