“Where Will We Live?”

Terrence Malick’s Fugitive Edens

by James A. Williams

25 May 2011


'Days of Heaven' and 'Badlands'

Malick’s second film Days of Heaven (1977) most obviously echoes Badlands in the narrative arc of crime followed by the search for and transitory inhabitation of an Edenic space. Bill flees Chicago along with his lover Abby and younger sister, Linda, after an altercation in which Bill kills the foreman at the factory where he works. Again, violation and transgression, original sin as it were, precedes the discovery of a seemingly more innocent existence. The trio flees the dingy, smoke-infested city and seeks work as migrant agricultural laborers, eventually finding employment on a vast wheat farm in Texas. Along with hundreds of other workers, travelling in wagons and on foot, they file onto the farm.

To emphasize the sense that his characters are moving from one world and one way of being to another, Malick has the migrant workers pass through a wooden archway that straddles the road leading into the farm. It bears noting that the archway, little more than skeletal scaffolding, serves no practical purpose since there is no fence around the farm; it doesn’t really keep anyway out nor anyone in. The archway is purely symbolic, a marker between the bad old past that Bill and company, and the other workers, want to escape and the better future they hope to find.

Life certainly seems better than whatever hard fate Bill would have suffered if he’d remained in Chicago. Yet for all its beauty the farm can hardly be called a paradise. The work is enormously strenuous; strife between workers is common if not rampant; and everywhere there are machines—early tractors and threshers—that threaten to make human labor obsolete. Perhaps most significantly there is the enormous disparity in wealth between the farmer who owns the land and the workers who tend it. All of the visual richness on display in scenes on the farm should remind us that in the world of the film it exists to make one man very wealthy. 

In other ways the film encourages ambivalence on the part of the viewer. There is a kind of rich aesthetic and thematic chiaroscuro throughout the portion of the film that takes place on the farm. Lingering shots of the landscape that evoke Thomas Hart Benton’s images of bucolic splendor—endless fields of wheat billowing voluptuously in the wind, small human figures performing their labor in the foreground of vast expanses of blue sky—alternate with shots of impoverished workers (sitting atop trains, gathered around a fire to eat their meals) that recall Dorothea Lange’s black and white images of pinch-faced and stoic itinerants in Depression-era America. There are, then, two stories of the land, and human beings’ relation to it, present in the film and each, I would suggest, is true even if they are essentially contradictory. 

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven

Still, while the farm can hardly be described as idyllic the landscape is an improvement over the industrial wasteland of Chicago (though, again, the loud, smoke-belching farm machinery that features so prominently in many scenes suggests that it’s just a matter of time before the city and the country are, in terms of their economic foundations, essentially indistinguishable). For the time being, though, the work, hard as it is, follows a natural pattern and after the harvest is in the workers have money and time enough to celebrate. They play music and dance and drink and generally while away the hours in the advent of the next cycle of labor.

In contrast to the deeply communal, if not always harmonious, life of the workers stands the lonely, indeed nearly utterly solitary, life of the farmer. He is practically a specter on his own land—a tall, gaunt, shadow dressed in a black suit. He is also terminally ill, though the nature of his illness is never disclosed. Whatever his physical problems may be, it’s safe to say that he suffers from a terrible existential loneliness.

The cure for his loneliness is his love for Abi, whom Bill persuades to marry the farmer so that she, he, and Linda may share in his wealth and inherit it after the farmer dies. The plan works well enough for awhile—except that the farmer’s condition doesn’t get worse. He just keeps living (as if Abi’s companionship has arrested the course of whatever ails him) and the awkward family constituted of him, Abi, and Linda enjoys a fine life of swimming, playing baseball, picnicking, and so on. As Linda says, “Nothin’ to do all day but crack jokes, lay around . . . we didn’t have to work. I’m tellin’ you, the rich got it figured out.” At the same time, the scenes of halcyon good times are juxtaposed with more sinister images. At one point Linda flips through a picture book and pauses over a depiction of gigantic snake sliding through a primordial jungle, an image that both serves as an emblem of the crime that brought the trio to the farm and foreshadows the crime to come.

That crime is Bill’s killing of the farmer during a confrontation about the true nature of Bill’s and Abi’s relationship. The murder is not premeditated—it might even be described as self-defense—but it is also a manifestation of the seething resentment that Bill feels toward the farmer, especially since Abi has fallen in love with him. Here, as elsewhere, Biblical antecedents come to mind but never but never quite coalesce—or at least do not conform to an exact template. Before this moment a plague of locusts has come to the farm and only a holocaust of fire can arrest their advance, obviously recalling Exodus. In Bill’s murder of the farmer, who is supposed to be his brother-in-law, there are traces of the story of Cain and Abel, though here it is as an itinerant Abel who murders Cain the farmer. And, of course, the trio’s departure from the farm after the murder is an expulsion from a kind of Eden.

The film, then, doubles the crime and flight narrative trajectory that first appears in Badlands. First, Bill, Abby, and Linda flee Chicago to take up residence on the farm and then they flee the farm (exiting, of course, through the gateway presented earlier) and set off for a life of footloose wandering. They’re rich enough, by virtue of selling jewelry and other items taken from the farmer’s house, not to have to work (for awhile at least) and their only concern is getting caught. As in Badlands the soundtrack that accompanies their journey, comprised of folk guitar music, is positively joyous. The world to which they flee is more carefree and unconstrained by obligation than even life at its best on the farm. As Roger Ebert suggested in his initial review of the film, these may be the film’s purest “days of heaven,” not the time on the farm.

As in Badlands, though, the flight from law and order, from the larger world of social obligation, cannot last. In place of Kit’s prospective execution at the end of Badlands, Days of Heaven ends with a posse of lawmen shooting Bill. This leaves Abby and Linda on their own and they quickly part ways. Abby jumps a troop train (World War I has begun) to pursue a life whose course is completely unknown. Abby leaves Linda at a boarding school but the last image of the film is of Linda and a friend wandering along a railroad track, perhaps an indication that theirs will be an unsettled, vagrant existence. If so, it will—presumably—be much less happy than the interim between the departure from the farm and Bill’s death.


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