Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. This movie is all about visual impact and this gorgeous, haunting piece of art will leave you in awe and you will wonder how on earth did this film come out in 1978. Terrence Malick, perhaps the most elusive human being on this planet, is known as a visual director and he proves it here with his second film. The story is very simple, but the story is not supposed to be at the forefront. Apparently after several days of shooting, Malick threw away the script and told the actors to wing it. Through a long and arduous editing process, Malick was able to come up with a coherent story.
Let’s talk about these visuals for a second. They are completely mesmerizing and it took people by surprise upon its release. I loved the use of natural lighting on set, which gave the film its unique colors. Malick wouldn’t allow the use of artificial light much to the dismay of many people who were not used to working this style. Much of the film was created during the hour just after sunset and just before it became dark. That is really impressive. Now many of the scenes are outdoors at a Texas prairie. Some of the best shots were just seeing the wheat swaying in the wind as night was falling. Two of cinema’s most impressive cinematographers worked on the movie: Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. There was some controversy because Almendros had to leave the film after a long while due to prior commitments, but he was given the credit of the work despite Wexler being able to prove he shot more than half of the film. These visuals are complimented beautifully by the haunting score of Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of all time. This combination of visuals and music created a unique form of art and something wondrous to behold.
The story is simple and relatively straightforward. The story did not become clear until the two years Malick spent in the editing room putting the film together. The film takes place right before the First World War. Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are a couple from Chicago. After Bill kills a man at his workplace, he and Abby pose as siblings as they escape down south to find a new life. Along with Billy’s little sister Linda (Linda Manz), they find employment on a Texas farm working the harvest. As they do the work, the farmer (Sam Shepard) has fallen in love with Abby. But Billy discovers the farmer is terminally ill and may only have one year left to live. Billy persuades Abby to marry the farmer so they can take advantage of the wealth after the farmer dies. But all may not go according to the plan.
Despite emphasis being placed on the visuals, I think the acting was fantastic. The actors here were mostly new to the business, but they would go on to have long careers. (Especially Richard Gere and Sam Shepard). Gere, Shepard, and Adams have fantastic chemistry with each other which is needed when there is a love triangle. I thought Linda Manz did a really fine job. The film is told from her point-of-view and she provides a haunting narration over the course of the movie. She is only a teenager, but she goes through experiences which causes her to be far more mature than her age.
Overall, Days of Heaven is a breath-taking masterpiece that allows the visuals to do its talking. This film was extremely rare for the time period it was created. With all the trouble that happened during production, it amazes me that this film is actually good. Malick had such a hard time with this film. In fact, he didn’t make another film until twenty years later. That is sad because he is a talented director, and he was able to push himself over the edge to create this film. I compare this film to nature. Nature is beautiful and there is gorgeous scenery in every location of this globe. Nature can be breath-taking and that is how I feel about this film.
My Grade: A