Days of Heaven is also the most Josh movie ever made.
I hesitate in calling it director Terence Malick’s greatest work (The Tree of Life), but it is probably his most perfect work. Having seen it for the first time a few months ago, and having seen it again more recently, it strikes me as one of the most unique things I’ve ever stumbled across – unique even among Malick’s body of work, while also paradoxically exemplifying it – and certainly one of the most beautiful. It also underlined, for me, a certain imbalance I had been detecting in Malick’s more recent-ish stuff (this one dates from 1978): even as he has embraced increasingly looser, experimental movie structures, his stuff has become increasingly obvious and heavy-handed thematically. This is fine in something like The New World or The Tree of Life, which are epic enough in their conception that you can buy into it, but by the time you get to Knight of Cups, it feels like “ok here’s my thesis statement, and now here’s 2+ hours of pretty photography to chase it.” By contrast, although Days of Heaven is (relatively) straight forward, it feels almost impossible to pin down what, exactly, it is about.
I mean, it does have a plot: in 1916 era Chicago, Bill (Richard Gere) is working in a steel mill when he kills his supervisor in an altercation. He goes on the run with his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz), and his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), who he pretends is his sister. They quickly get hired in the country to work for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard) who is terminally ill, and who becomes smitten with Abby. Bill hatches a plan: Abby will marry the farmer, and, when he dies, inherit his estate. This blows up in everyone’s faces.
So much for the plot. The thing about it is that it functions in almost the opposite manner as to a lot of Malick’s other movies, which are these maximalist epics filled with stuff (his debut, Badlands, is a bit of another exception, but merely because he had yet to find his style back then). Days of Heaven, on the other hand, feels like a three hour movie which has been ruthlessly edited down to 94 minutes, such that what you see is very elliptical and aphoristic. The effect isn’t rushed so much as it just doesn’t allow you to truly enter into the interior lives of these characters. You don’t come to know them the way you know them the way you do the family in The Tree of Life; it isn’t particularly about them, they’re almost just aesthetic props meant to evoke a certain mood or sense of mystery.
So what is Days of Heaven about, then? Linda provides the narration, but her lines are so scattered and borderline-incoherent that they don’t provide any real structure or point of view; just observations and thoughts that are more or less relevant. Her words are just another aesthetic prop, really.
There are the various Biblical allusions: the title itself is a phrase from the Old Testament. Bill and Abby pretending to be siblings on the farm recalls Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. And for the climax, there’s even a plague of locusts. But I’m not sure what these add up to, aside from untethering the action from its particular historical circumstances and giving it an unworldly quality.
The cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is famously beautiful. But in particular, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that has placed such an emphasis on the horizon its in compositions as this one does. It suggests heaven and earth touching, the divine and the human meeting at some point. Human figures and the farmer’s house tend to breach the horizon, while tractors and trains ride it, which strikes me as significant, although I can’t quite grasp why. It makes the characters seem small, but in the sense of how they measure up against God.
That’s the thing: everything about this movie feels so meaningful and evocative as I watch it, but elusive when I attempt to grasp it. At the same time, it doesn’t strike me as an exercise in poetic overindulgence in the way that (again) Knight of Cups kinda is. It doesn’t feel like the kind of movie that has a lot to say about nothing in particular, or which hides its own shallowness behind vagueness; its too assured and confident in its imagery for that. The images are the movie, really. It’s a Josh movie just for that.
I still don’t know what it’s about; maybe I need to watch it a few more times. But then you don’t need to know what a sunset is “about” in order to be stunned by it.