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Days of Heaven (1978)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard
Running Time: 1 h 34 m
TMM Score: 5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Cinematography, Symbolism, Writing
A farm hand convinces the woman he loves to marry their dying boss so they can claim his fortune.
Malick was on fire in the 1970s. His first film, Badlands, is a beautifully poetic film about loss of love and innocence, and it showed some indications of what was to come from Malick later on. His follow up, Days of Heaven, showcases Malick’s talents as we’re more used to them. His story is less structured, his shots more stylized; emotion matters more than narrative in this movie. This movie’s premise is very simple, but the way it plays out gives it so much more meaning. The film also features some of the most iconic sequences of cinematography I’ve ever seen (Nestor Alemendros actually won for cinematography in 1978).
In the Garden of Eden
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Bill (Richard Gere, Chicago) and Abby (Brooke Adams, The Dead Zone) are unmarried lovers living in Chicago near the turn of the century. Bill is a steel worker, and bit hotheaded. He accidentally kills his foreman, and Bill and Abby, along with Bill’s younger sister Linda (Linda Manz, The Game), flee west to Texas where they find a farm on which the three of them can work. Bill and Abby work under false names and pretend to be brother and sister. The Farmer (Sam Shepard, Cold in July) begins to fall in love with Abby, and eventually proposes marriage. Bill encourages Abby to take the Farmer up on the offer when he finds out the Farmer only has a few months to live. But when the Farmer doesn’t die, as Bill thought he would, Bill becomes angry that Abby wont leave the Farmer, and thing become more complicated.
As I mentioned above, the premise for this film is very simple. The plot itself seems to be only scaffolding on which Malick can hang a wonderful metaphor. This movie encapsulates life itself; it’s a metaphor for the harvesting of souls and the end time, for the judgment of God at the end of all things. The most iconic scene in this movie, the scene where the locusts devour the fields, is the moment of judgment, when the world ends. The cinematography and symbolism in that scene alone was enough to bring me to tears. It’s one of the most beautifully shot sequences I’ve ever seen on film, and the sound design, the music, the performances by the actors, the almost hellish look of the fields, elevates this movie to powerful poetry.
Because the plot for this movie is so simple, most of meaning comes from metaphors. This movie is really where Malick starts to show his ambition, especially compared to Badlands, which feels far more straightforward than even this film. Malick is known for his poetic imagery and metaphorical meanings, and sometimes that makes his films a little inaccessible. This movie, while definitely more artistic than Badlands, still is relatively straightforward. I do think that people who have a rough time watching arthouse movies will struggle a little more with this one, however. It’s very slowly and deliberately paced, but meaningfully so. The film is called Days of Heaven, and many of the sequences, sounds, and richly saturated colors all lend themselves towards making this film feel more dreamlike, ethereal, and heavenly. I said to my roommate, who watched this with me, that this film felt a lot like Picnic at Hanging Rock as far as tone and cinematic style. Both films succeed in making the viewer feel like they’ve experienced these heavenly worlds before thrusting them into worlds of horror.
All three lead actors are great. Richard Gere, who I normally find a little annoying, was actually quite good for most of this movie. I’m not particularly family with Brooke Adam’s work, but she held her own in this movie too. Sam Shepard is always great, and I think he gave the best performance of the three.
This is a hard film to write a lot about, because I feel like it needs to be experienced more than anything else. It’s a film that entrances you with cinematography from the beginning, and then it overpowers you with its ability to create a lush landscape that feels otherworldly. Malick creates a world that begs to be touched. It feels so tactile, yet so ethereal and metaphorical. This is a wonderful film filled with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking drama. This movie is also far more accessible than some of Malick’s later work, so if you aren’t as familiar with him I’d start with this or Badlands.
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