A dictionary definition of “heaven” would either take you to “paradise” or “the sky,” yet in Terrence Malick’s second feature, Days of Heaven, its title implies it is already present down below on earth. Terrence Malick’s second feature film carries what could easily look like a muted romance on the surface but beyond that, one of the finest American films of the 1970’s is present, together with one of the most beautifully shot films of all time. Those are the least of what I feel makes Days of Heaven near half as impactful as it really is, because the first experience I had with the film had me at a distance – although as I watched more of Malick’s work, maybe there was more to be said as I grew more attached to what was presented. If it isn’t my favourite Malick, what’s still there to be said is that it also happens to be one of the finest films ever made.
Malick’s second feature is set within 1916 for we watch a love story between a Chicago laborer and his girlfriend unfold in front of our eyes as narrated by the girlfriend’s younger sister. Bill, who ran away from the steel mill where he worked after killing his boss, flees together with Abby to the Texas panhandle in order to harvest crops for a farmer. In this love story, only the three characters at its center are given a name (Bill, Abby, Linda), and subtle hints are present from here at an isolated note. Yet perhaps it’s this tone which Malick aims for that only heightens Days of Heaven in all of its glory and allows it to remain inside of one’s head. Malick’s best interest does not lay within how he tells the stories of his characters as they are being watched but moreso it is within the environment which surrounds them. It could have been within here Malick lets out some of his most thoughtful, but more is left to cover.
It’s easy to note the beauty of the cinematography, for it reflects almost like a painting. Malick has a ways with catching the beauty of exteriors on the screen that has throughout the years been prominent in his body of work but it is often noted that in Days of Heaven some of the most gorgeous imagery he has ever put on film is captured, given as the film was shot on location in the wheat fields of Alberta, Canada. It is the case with such a work but said visual beauty is not the most to which is offered in Days of Heaven that allows it to be one of the finest films of its era. Yet nonetheless, it comes from this painting-like framing that allows Days of Heaven to become near half the memorable work that it is, but the sort of work that Malick presents here is a more difficult sort to capture. If the noted beauty of Badlands were not enough to solidify Malick’s expertise with capturing exterior beauty on film, what he provides five years later only shows a greater achievement – for it all feels so perfect inside of a formal manner, but the planning behind capturing such imagery is impeccable for what was required went from a perfect time and frame in order to acquire the beautiful lighting which is presented in Days of Heaven.
Something to which I have noted in a prior paragraph was the notion in which only the three leading characters are named all throughout – the lovers Abby and Billy together with the innocent Linda, who narrates. It would be normal to assume that because of the fact that Billy and Abby are the central pair of lovers in Malick’s supposed love story, they represent the perspective to which Malick intends his viewers observe Days of Heaven within. It comes from how Linda watches over the lovers and tells their story where this romance soon becomes a representation of the loss of her innocence. If Days of Heaven were about how a background corrupts a limited understanding of the world around them. What Malick captures for the eyes he places a metaphor for corruption upon what happens to the wheat fields.
There are two ideas for the American Dream coming to play in here. One such viewpoint is a more muted is that of the unnamed dying farmer and his workers, and the other one which is critical to the story is that from Billy and Abby, who want the farmer’s fortune in order to benefit their own lives. Malick distorts these perceptions in order to show an outlook in which a perceived empire begins to crumble down upon itself after a great loss hits both in some way. However, it would be within what the wheat is symbolic of. As the wheat grows stronger, the fortune grows larger, but soon enough something corrupts the routine and damages the field and eventually both dreams find themselves within a state of ruin. Malick’s perception of the American Dream works perfectly as a deconstruction of the atmosphere it provides all throughout, especially when it comes to the isolation between the two central ideals.
In itself the allegory which Days of Heaven presents is one that calls directly to a Bible passage together with its title, and soon it rings perfectly where Terrence Malick has found something to which he feels most comfortable within himself. One can go ahead and look up the dictionary definition of “heaven” and find the word synonymous with “paradise,” for it is a state which is perfectly captured in Days of Heaven. On many occasions, the film calls back to biblical references whether it be from the locust plague or callings towards the devil, for soon Malick turns his own romance story into one that plays out almost like that of Adam and Eve. Humankind is responsible for what it is that they see as paradise but it is within the same veins they can also play responsibility for its own destruction – as shown within the heartbreaking climax.
All throughout, Days of Heaven is a film that emphasizes one’s loneliness after their isolation from the world which surrounds them. Our lovers are a lonely pair that feel at distance in spite of their companionship and we are told this story from a broken perspective upon what more is there to be witnessed. As a viewer we take in this broken perspective for what could easily have been a simple love story by structure in order to get a grasp at another experience which Terrence Malick intended to evoke. It could be within the wheat fields this feeling is highlighted all the more for his own audience to bear witness to. Within this captured feeling, there’s a greater resonance being lifted as within this story of lust it highlights a comfort that one searches for. But at the same time a greater effect can be felt when listening to its narration as we watch innocence fading away much like the wheat fields on display.
Days of Heaven is a spiritual experience – the sort that Terrence Malick was best known for creating, working up to a level to where he finds himself at his most comfortable. This sort of spirituality has only allowed Malick’s films to move gracefully and over the years no other American filmmaker has created an effort that challenges what has been offered in this same manner. It presents itself as a love story on the substance, but at the exact same time a commentary about comfort within the world inhabited, together with the allegory presented has formed a sort of mastery that has allowed such to stand out as one of the finest films of its time. The simplicity of Days of Heaven highlights in part what could grant accessibility, but every frame as it works its way to perfection calls out for more. This is a film about desire and its effects upon innocence, and one’s own paradise: the days of heaven.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Terrence Malick
Screenplay by Terrence Malick
Produced by Bert Schneider, Harold Schneider
Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Linda Manz, Sam Shepard
Release Year: 1978
Running Time: 94 minutes