Rounding off Film Torments’ Oscar Month special, here’s our sideways stare at Terence Malick’s sophomore effort, the much-delayed result of a troubled production: Days of Heaven.
Terence Malick has spent four decades in the film industry, crafting beautiful, elegiac, poetic treatises on the nature of humanity. So goes the general critical consensus of an enigmatic director who often shies away from the limelight; with the mauling of his most recent effort, To the Wonder, an indulgent 100 minutes of waifish maudlin guff, however, the tide seemed to turn a little. Though Malick’s films are undeniably gorgeous, they seldom achieve the aching lyricism they strive for, their characters often appearing to serve as walking soundboards for heavy-handed whispery poetry written by the man himself.
And yet it was not always so. His debut feature, 1973’s Badlands, is a gritty take on suburban misfits that’s loosely based on a real-life killing spree. Compared to the meandering sprawl of his Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life, Badlands has a brutal immediacy and deftness of pace, coupled with an electrifying Martin Sheen performance. Lauded for his attention to late 50s period detail, Malick looked further back into the annals of American history for his next film, Days of Heaven.
Set over the course of a few years in the Texas Panhandle (from 1916 onwards), Days of Heaven tells the story of Bill and Abby (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) who harvest crops for a wealthy and nameless farmer (Sam Shepard). Posing as siblings and accompanied by Bill’s younger sister Linda (Linda Manz), Bill convinces Abby to marry the terminally-ill farmer so that she may inherit his considerable fortune.
For those familiar with Malick’s work, this already represents more explicit narrative detail than most of his latter-day films. Narrative structure in Malick’s films is often told not through dialogue but through visual and aural cues, with plaintive looks and window spooning; screaming arguments scored by Brahms; swooping angles of national monuments and whishing wheat fields. There’s a whole lot of wheat in Days of Heaven – the wheat, it turns out, has more screentime than the actors. Woody Allen’s hilarious scene in Love & Death encapsulates the joys of wheat; Days of Heaven worships the stuff.
It’s not only the wheat that stuns. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Néstor Almendros is nothing short of dazzling. Filmed almost entirely with natural light, in the so-called ‘magic hour’, Almendros’ camerawork is the only thing that truly elevates Malick’s film to the realm of classic. Beyond Almendros’ photography, however, Days of Heaven fails to hit the mark, certainly in its narrative stakes.
This is partly down to the dramatic action being drained by the inclusion of Manz’s awkward, improvised narration. Tacked on after a difficult production in which several of the production crew quit, the narration is a mumbled, expository word-vomit that adds nothing to the film that the visuals and – yes – minimal dialogue can already muster. The narration mostly consists of Manz reiterating what the scene already conveys, and the effect is wearisome.
The main performers – Gere, Adams and Shepard – are given more dialogue than the standard Malick but the hack-and-slash editing process removes them of their agency. A dashingly brunette Gere is lively, always on the edge, his movements charged like a livewire, but the doomed Shepard is controlled to a fault, eternally tense, suspicious and dangerous. Adams, poised in the middle, is adrift, confused and conflicted, often desperate. For all the subtlety of their performances, Malick prefers to focus on the endless rolling wheat fields instead of his performers.
Malick’s direction is beautiful, undoubtedly, but there’s only so much wheat that can be contained in one film. The narrative suffers because of his apparent predilection for long, static shots of wheat and combine harvesters. Visually rapturous as these are, the plot suffers extensively as a result, distancing our emotional connection to the characters and reducing our appreciation to a merely ocular level. The editing prefigures the loose style of his later works but chops the film up too much for it to be resonant.
Only in the last 20 minutes or so does the film truly come alive. The stunning arrival of the locusts in burning wheat fields resembles an apocalyptic vision, Biblical in scope – it’s the only time that the visual and written narrative finally converge into something deeply striking. But it’s a fleeting vision, and we are left only with what could have been.
For Malick fans, Days of Heaven represents the beginning of his foray into the experimental editing and chronological leaping of his later work. For non-Malick fans, it represents a rapid descent from the grounded grit of Badlands. For those inbetween, it’s a curiosity, a beautiful, slippery chimera of a film that eludes obvious classification.
Half-brilliant, half-ponderous, its cinematography nonetheless wowed the Academy and convinced an exhausted Malick to take a break for 20 years before returning to the screen with The Thin Red Line. It’s occasionally a slog, and it could have only really been made with the creative license indulged by the 70s.