DAYS OF HEAVEN Directed and Written by Terrence Malick
Days of Heaven is lush with brilliant images. Set in the Texas Panhandle just before World War I, this movie unleashes one spectacular panorama after another: snowy plains aglow in the blue light of a winter moon, wheatfields shimmering under a burnt autumn sun, expansive skies carpeted with cumulus clouds. There is enough beauty here for a dozen movies; yet the total effect is far from pretty. Slowly but surely the sharp images carve away at the audience's guts.
Like Badlands, Director Terrence Malick's remarkable first film, his new work is a bleak and unstinting attack on America's materialistic culture. But Malick is an artist, not a polemicist; his scabrous ideas are expressed in the elegiac terms of a fable. In Days of Heaven he tells of a migrant worker, Bill (Richard Gere), who travels from Chicago with his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz) to harvest wheat for an aristocratic Texas farmer (Playwright Sam Shepard). Tired of "nosing around like a pig" and infuriated by his employer's wealth, Bill decides to use the ravishing Abby to bilk the farmer out of his fortune. No sooner does the scheme get going, however, than Abby falls in love with her prey.
Out of this slender tale, which pointedly recalls Theodore Dreiser's novels of the period, Malick constructs a complex web of moral ambiguities. He invites us to sympathize with the criminal Bill and Abby, who have a right to revolt against poverty. But he also arouses our affection for the privileged farmer, a kind and sickly man whose riches pay off only in loneliness and boredom. To Malick, all these people are victims of their innocent faith in a warped American dream. Their tragedy is that they blame themselves, rather than their false ideals, for the misery of their lives. Though none of the characters can find either happiness or justice, God ultimately passes his own judgment on their plight. Days of Heaven climaxes with a cleansing, Old Testament plague of locustsa nighttime Apocalypse so damning that it makes the similar finale of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust seem tame by comparison.
To help carry out his spellbinding vision, Malick has turned to some of the most talented figures in European film making: Cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Claire's Knee) and Composer Ennio Morricone (1900). Their work is stunning; yet there is no mistaking Days of Heaven for anything other than an American movie. Malick's ability to capture the terror in plain, homespun settings recalls the spooky vistas of Painter Edward Hopper. The film's naive narrationrecited in deadpan colloquialisms by the teen-age Lindais right out of Ring Lardner's sardonic stories. In the tradition of these other native ironists, Malick keeps his distance from his material. Though built around a heartbreaking love triangle, Days of Heaven has no introspective dialogue and no Freudian fireworks. Accordingly, actors have been cast more on the basis of how they look than how they emote. Except for Gere, who is too manicured to pass for a migrant, the cast serves the movie well. In a more conventional film, perhaps, Gere might have caused severe damage; here he is just an irritant.