Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick is anything but a prolific filmmaker. Like Stanley Kubrick, his films are few and far between, but their originality and beauty is such that each one of them is its own special event. Since 1972, Malick has made but four films. I really enjoyed his first film, Badlands, which featured a young Martin Sheen as a dangerous teenager tearing up the dustbowl with his deadpan girlfriend (played by Sissy Spacek in maybe my favorite performance of hers) in tow. Days of Heaven was Mr. Malick’s second feature, and many have pointed to the troubles he endured while working on it as the main reason for the twenty-year gap before he made another picture.

Production problems aside, Days of Heaven is a beautiful film, a painterly portrait of migrant workers trudging through the dust-bowl, their hardships and troubles conjuring up memories of the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath. In typical Malick style, the film is slow and lyrical, relying more on the scenery and subtle character interaction to propel the action rather than outright conflict and grandiose speeches. Malick has a philosophy degree from Harvard and is rumored to be very devout, and these metaphysical leanings show in his storytelling style. He employs a biblical rhetoric in telling the story, a kind of tragedy that seems reminiscent of a religious parable, right down to the plague of locusts that strikes in the film’s later stages.

The story is deceivingly simple. Richard Gere plays Bill, a Chicago factory worker who, after accidentally killing a man, takes off to the mid-west with his little sister Linda and girlfriend Abby, played wonderfully by Linda Manz and Brooke Adams. Abby poses as his other sister when they travel and work because, as Linda explains, “people talk.” The trio find work on a small farm on the plains, a barren wasteland of grasses with a stately mansion looming on a hill, seeming incredibly out of place in such empty territory. The owner of the mansion on the hill, who is never referred to by name and is simply listed in the credits as “the Farmer,” is dying of a rare stomach disease. He has watched Abby from afar and falls in love with her, wanting to take a wife to ease the pain of his last days. Bill has overheard a doctor declare that the man has less than a year to live, so when the Farmer proposes to her, he encourages her to accept, hatching the plan of inheriting the man’s wealth when he dies. As devious plans never properly come into fruition, the Farmer, played with an endearing kind of softness by Sam Shepard, lives on, his body seemingly rejuvenated by the love that he feels for Abby. The result is that a considerable strain is placed on Bill and Abby’s now secret relationship, and even though they live in greater luxury than they could have ever imagined, happiness has slipped further away than ever before.

The film is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Linda, who plays a negligible part in the dramatic heart of the story. She is an outsider to most of the action, taking it all in. Like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she tells the story through narration, relating the events while adding in her own opinions on love and death, good and evil (“we’re all half angel and half devil”). The story is all a memory, and Malick’s lyrical style helps to recreate the feeling of reconstructing one’s life. There is little dialogue throughout most of the film. The characters instead speak in quick exchanges or looks, and the countryside, with its blood-red suns and mud-banked rivers, often hijacks the inertia of the plot in favor of more contemplative moods. Like a person recollecting years past, it is not what was said that is always remembered, but instead a look or the way the wind blew the grasses on a particular day. Such a style is often trying, but Malick has an artist’s hand, using his cinematography to evoke feelings and place suggestions in the viewer's mind.

Like all Malick films, Days of Heaven is slow and contemplative, leaving the viewer with many questions when the credits roll. It is not a perfect film--it sometimes focuses too much on style over substance, and the last ten minutes seem to weigh down the mood-- but it is a tale of such evocative beauty that Malick’s self-indulgence can be forgiven. It presents questions about the price one will pay for security, and whether or not love can flourish under any circumstances. It is a powerful film, and seeing as it lead the auteur to abandon cinema for two decades, one that should be carefully considered.

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