Days of Heaven (1978)
Written & Directed by Terrence Malick
When I was a child, my dad had a bookshelf in his home office. This was the place I first stumbled across the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I never finished (it took me a year to complete Fellowship, and admittedly I was ten years old, so maybe not quite old enough for Tolkien’s prose?). However, another book on this shelf highly interested me even though I didn’t have much context for it, The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible by Otto Bettmann.
This non-fiction text focused on the post-American Civil War era to the early 1900s and detailed through primary sources, research, and photographs how this was a time of squalid, brutal living for most people. It cuts through the myths surrounding the Gilded Age and looks at life from the working-class perspective. It was published in 1974 and is part of a more significant trend for a few years in the mid to late 1970s of academic reflection on the struggles caused by the Industrial Revolution. Days of Heaven is another piece of media interested in looking at humans as contradictions of labor/survival and deep intimate emotion.
In 1916, Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his boss at the steel mill during a fight. He packs up his life with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda (Linda Manz) and rides a train to the Texas Panhandle. The trio finds work as seasonal laborers for a wealthy farmer (Sam Shephard). Bill and Abby pose as siblings to prevent gossip, but this complicates things when the farmer develops feelings for Abby. She and Bill weigh the benefits of this. The farmer has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, so they bargain that he will be dead within a year, Abby will inherit everything, and they can resume their actual relationship. Of course, this plan begins to fall apart as soon as they implement it, and it is clear things will end in tragedy.
Terrence Malick has become a figure of ridicule by some in cinema discourse and one of high praise by others. I think this may have to do with his recent film output, which increased immensely due to the development of digital filmmaking. For context, his first feature Badlands was released in 1973. Days of Heaven was five years later, but then we had a twenty-year gap before his third feature, The Thin Red Line, came out. Seven years further would see The New World, then four years to Tree of Life. From there, Malick has directed a film every 1-3 years. His style of filmmaking isn’t concerned with plot or even character, in the way modern audiences have come to expect. The best way to describe Malick’s work is to make visual poems. Every frame is about a feeling, and if you were to chart his plots, they are the barest of bones. I feel his work does an excellent job conveying how stories aren’t limited to the plot, that stories can be about emotions, and how experiences shape people in very thoughtful ways. His protagonists are rarely people of action, but it often comes back to devastate them when they do act.
For me, Malick’s work feels intertwined with the cosmic. In some instances, Tree of Life is explicitly images of birth & destruction on a cosmic scale to communicate its themes. In Days of Heaven, characters explore their world like primitive humans. They wander through fields of wheat & stroll along the banks of a river. They move without a destination in mind. Something compels them to do this, but they don’t question it.
While Malick’s two lovers rarely speak in this movie, it is narrated by Bill’s little sister Linda. Her voice isn’t what you would expect from a child, gruff & blunt. Her words are disconnected from Bill & Abby’s story for the most part. From time to time, she will comment on developments with the farmer, but she’s living her own life, coming into her own. My view of Linda is that she is transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Her words are part of a struggle to make sense of things happening around her. Bill & Abby are just one thing in her world. She develops a friendship with a fellow laborer, a slightly older girl who has been dumped by a potential beau. The film ends with the two being reunited off-screen and now talking about continuing to just wander and see where the wind takes them.
Part of Malick’s method of filmmaking is to just film things, even if they are not immediately connected to the script or themes. He’s interested in discovering the film as he makes it, something that plays as anathema to the very budget-focused concerns of Hollywood studios. The director’s script is merely the film’s outline while turning on the cameras is when you truly make the picture. The end product may not be on the page, which is a beautiful thing to experience. It points to a closer approximation of how humans experience life; we do not know day to day what our personal narrative arc will be.
We discover our lives as we live them regardless of how much planning our parents and people in positions of authority have planned for us. Often, those lives end up close to what was pre-planned but with caveats of various mental health issues or disruptions in that flow that seemingly come out of nowhere. As a result, there are no clear arcs and plot points in existence, just life. By following this unusual structure, Malick’s work takes on a spiritual air, speaking not to a satisfying puzzle of creative writing putting together pieces but of an emotion or an experience and how that resonates through the way we see the world.