A Southern wheat field is overtaken with locusts in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven.
Days of Heaven is a major step up for filmmaker Terrence Malick. While his debut feature, Badlands, showed promise, it ultimately left me feeling cold. His second feature, however, is a haunting portrait of youth, love, and the mistakes that accompany each. The Oscar-winning cinematography is a highlight, as is the surprisingly terrific and helpful voiceover narration. But the star is Malick, who takes what worked in his first film and adds a much-needed emotional component. Days of Heaven still features that meditative, hands-off style one might expect from a Malick film, but it reels you in on a whole other level.
Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are young lovers and drifters in the Midwest during the early 1900s. Along with their young partner, Linda (Linda Manz), they roam around looking for work and trying to conceal the fact that they're unmarried. To do so, they tell people they're brother and sister, which earns them some awkward looks when they land at a wheat farm in the South. During the harvest, Abby catches the eye of farm's owner (Sam Shepard). Bill notices this and feels a tinge of jealousy, but he recognizes an opportunity when he sees it. If the owner, who is very sick, marries Abby, she'll be the heir to the whole farm. So rather than rebuff his advances, she plays along and eventually marries the farm owner. But not long after the marriage, Bill starts to really regret things. He sees Abby starting to fall out of love with him, and this drives him crazy. And despite their best efforts, Bill and Abby can't quite seem to conceal the true nature of their relationship. So with two men jealous and one woman confused, everything comes to a head, just at the moment when everything on the farm goes to hell.
By telling the story from Linda's point of view, Malick accomplishes two things. First, he allows us to ponder the meaning of love from an outsider's perspective. Linda has little else to do in the film but help harvest some wheat and run around on the farm. She's not educated (she regularly mispronounces or misuses words in her narration), and she's obviously never been in love. As a result, she's somewhat unaware of the complicated feelings that surround her and her loved ones, and we can observe from a distance along with her.
Secondly, we're able to generate our own conclusions regarding the characters and their feelings because Linda is our window into this world. Is Bill's anger and temper justified? Or is he pushing it too far? Is Abby's flighty? Or is she driven away by Bill? These are questions that can't be easily answered because we don't see the film from their perspective at all. It's a smart love that adds a layer of complexity to an otherwise familiar story.
Malick's other great achievement is his pacing. Days of Heaven usually zigs when its supposed to zig and zags when it should zag, but every once in a while, it throws in a surprise or two to keep us on our toes. The disaster at the farm, for instance, comes out of nowhere, but it's a welcome jolt. Better than just having a few twists, however, is that they don't feel cheap at all. The scene mentioned above, in addition to surprising us, drips with meaning, as the farm owner's decent into bitterness and hostility couples well with his farm's problems.
Richard Gere turns out one of his better performances as a hot head who brings a whole mess of trouble onto himself. He's sympathetic, though, as we see his heart is in the right place. He just is too young and naive to realize there's always a consequence to sneaky behavior. Brooke Adams is a little blah as Abby, who's not exactly one of film's legendary heroines. Sam Shepard, however, is spot-on. He portrays the world-weariness of a man who's been burned one to many times, as well as the innocence of someone who's still hoping for love to find him. He's definitely the heart of the picture, as we pity and root for him despite his obvious third-wheel status. Linda Manz, however, gives the film's best performance. Though I'm on record for saying she doesn't have much to do, the narration work is sensational. Usually a crutch to tell rather than show, I'm not a fan of this device. Yet it works here, as in most Malick films. But Manz is just the perfect storyteller. So much is conveyed just in her tone that when she actually appears on screen, she has already earned our attention.
Though I wouldn't go so far as to say Days of Heaven is Malick's best work, I would say that Days of Heaven is essential viewing for all film fans and anyone who enjoys a thoughtful and well-made romantic drama. It's a film that rewards patience and really stays with you, and for that, it earns a hearty recommendation.