Days of Heaven opens with a montage of early 20th century photos, many featuring the dead-eyed stares of poor urban immigrants. It’s a reminder, despite the prettiness of the cinematography to follow, of the difficult world the characters inhabit. Twelve-year-old narrator Linda (Linda Manz) seems like a Dead End kid, with taut features and dirty face. She spits out her narration in a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Chic-ah-gah accent. “You know how people ar’,” she says, “You tell ’em something’, they start talkin’.”
Manz’s performance embodies the dreamy but tough aesthetic of this remarkable film, briefly re-released on a new 35mm print at New York’s Film Forum. Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s a product of a ’70s reevaluation of American myths, with an emphasis on period realism and open endings. The story fades in and out of focus, the characters are shiftless, the performances uneven. The film subtly evokes an American Biblical subtext, and yet, sometimes succumbs to cliché, the romanticized West or the sin that wreaks havoc with that romance.
Malick’s films always look great and few have received such laudatory hosannas as Days of Heaven (it was voted fourth best-looking movie by American Cinematographer magazine in 1999). Cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler use natural light, Panaglide technology, and show influence by realist American painters (Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper). Almendros describes his use of extensive “magic hour” shooting in A Man with a Camera: “Everyone knows that country people get up very early to do their chores (we shot at twilight to get the feeling of dawn)… At that time people worked from sunrise to sunset” (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 183). This approach fits into the lyrical-naturalist story, with echoes of John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck.
In line with these inspirations, the film sets urban and rural spaces against one another. In Chicago, Linda’s brother Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with his factory foreman. A wannabe self-made man who’s too dumb and unfocused to make it, Bill always believes his big break is around the corner. And so he moves his wife Abby (Brooke Adams) and Linda to the wheat fields of Texas.
Here they find work on a farm presided over by its ailing, nameless owner (Sam Shepard). When he takes an interest in Abby, she eventually marries him, pretending to be Bill’s sister, so they can get his money when he dies. But when the farmer ends up being healthier than they thought, a love triangle takes root. This plot is as weak as it sounds, a traditional melodrama dropped into a film filled with gorgeous, unguarded moments. Adams and Gere’s acting is similarly “Hollywood,” his affect never convincing as a crude hothead.
When Bill’s plan leads to a fiery climax, the specter of hell engulfing this “heaven” is surely overwrought. But when the folk wisdom of Linda’s narration is coupled with improvised scenes showing the characters living hand to mouth in the country, Days of Heaven suggests a sense of freedom removed from any societal construct. This childlike idea of freedom ties in to the romanticism of the American West. Bill, Abby, and Linda are young and self-centered, and cannot live this way forever. Frequent talk of a coming apocalypse and the cascading piano parts of Ennio Morricone’s score evoke the hopeful, yet ominous aura of a society in transition. The imminent apocalypse is another American dream of sorts. Both harsh and beautiful, Days of Heaven leaves you with the ache of paradise briefly felt and then remembered.