Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies has brought us to an interesting place: the early days of Terrence Malick’s directorial career. Malick has since become a very sensory filmmaker, for whom style has become more important than any story element could ever hope to be. Tree of Life and The New World are beautiful films, but that beauty isn’t supporting much of a narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I find The New World to be quite effective, but it is interesting to juxtapose the movies Malick makes now with his second film – Days of Heaven.
Set in 1916, Days of Heaven follows the lives of Bill (Richard Gere, who is apparently not British in real life – who knew?), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and his younger sister Linda (Linda Manz), as they leave Chicago after Bill is involved in a violent crime. They make their way to rural Texas and find work on a rich farmer’s (Sam Shepard) plot of land. The farmer is not well, and after he takes a liking to Abby, Bill encourages her to play along, so they can all benefit from his leftover wealth once the farmer succumbs to his illness.
That’s already more plot that the last two Malick movies combined, and things only get more complicated. I haven’t even mentioned the locusts. So much story is an interesting scaffold for Malick’s film, but I don’t know if it is one hundred percent effective compared to what he has produced since. The story boils down to four people (well, three since Linda is pretty passive) doing what they feel they must to survive the struggle.
In his essay, Ebert defends Days of Heaven for its lack of concrete emotion from its adult characters, saying Malick is instead showing us their interaction from Linda’s outsider perspective. I don’t know if I fully agree with Roger in terms of Malick’s intention, but I still find Days of Heaven to be an affecting film. Malick’s oeuvre today is focused solely on conveying emotion through filmmaking, so it is interesting to see that execution evolve.
Certain aspects of Malick’s style are already present, however. The cinematography by both Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler alternates between widely sweeping and crushingly intimate. There are moments where the characters look lost in a sea of wheat fields (god this guy loves wheat), and then there are shots that zero in on the tiniest things like a sprouting plant or a jittery locust. Days of Heaven has much of the iconic visuals, without so much pretension.
Do I love Days of Heaven? I do not. But that does not change the fact that it is a beautiful piece of filmmaking from a time when the equipment was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Is this the sweet spot in Malick’s career? Before the plot gave way to incessant whispers. It is certainly an interesting stage in the maturation of a visionary filmmaker. And it’s worth viewing for that alone.