DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: DAYS OF HEAVEN

Sunday 15 July 2007


Days of Heaven (1978) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard


Don’t worry, I’m not going to do another list, but if a poll were taken for the most beautiful film of all time, “Days of Heaven” would probably top the list. The title is synonymous with top notch cinematography and poetic introspective filmmaking. Though it’s shot by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler it’s Terrence Malick’s film from beginning to end. It’s one of the greatest films of all time.

It’s turn of the century America. A trio of displaced people from the east have moved west to start a new living in the burgeoning Midwest prairies. Bill and Abby (Gere and Adams) are a couple and little Linda is Billy's 12 year old sister. We never really get to know the trio and where they came from. The opening scene shows Bill arguing with a former employer at a steel factory, hitting him in the face and running off into the distance. We don’t know where or when this took place or what happened to the man he hit. Is Bill on the run from the authorities? We never know. It’s this type of non-specific oblique storytelling that makes “Days of Heaven” so fascinating. The backstory is etched in the subtle facial features of Billy, Abby and Linda. The details are their sordid past are not necessary to explain the desperation they now find themselves in.

While working on a farm harvesting wheat, the (nameless) farm owner played by Sam Shepard falls in love with Abby on first sight. I don’t know why, Adams is not dressed or made up to look like a stunner, but there’s an instant connection that sends life coursing through his veins. When Bill discovers the farmer is dying they hatch a plan to pretend they are siblings and milk the inheritance money out of the man before he dies. Since Abby and Bill have kept quiet about their relationship the plan works and so begins the Shakespearan-type tragedy that will ensue between the three of them.

The film is told from the point of view of the child, Linda (Linda Manz) and mainly through her almost arbitrary voiceover. It’s a childlike view into this new world. The passages don’t necessarily make sense or explain the story but it compliments the dreamlike atmosphere of the experience.

The film indeed is dreamlike. Malick’s choice of music washes over you like gentle waves. He uses original compositions from the great Ennio Morricone, but the theme of the film is Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals". The opening credits set the tone perfectly - Camille’s piece played with a gorgeous piano arrangement, visualized with sepia toned photographs of the era - a classical story about American history told with the utmost artistic interpretation.

The star of the show is the cinematography. Nestor Almendros, a frequent collaborator of Francois Trauffat’s, shot the film in 70mm and the quality of the higher resolution and detail of the large format is evident. The film takes place mostly outdoors and at the magic hour of the day - the hours during sunset and sunrise which creates a unique colour and softness of the light. The result is the sepia toned look of the opening sequence created in camera. The first time I saw the film (on video) I was astounded - each shot was more astonishing than the one before it. Malick frames his film with perfect composition and, when required, highlights areas with just enough light to create exquisite depth. Watch the shot after Billy assaults his boss at the steel factory. The shot of Gere running away from the camera with the shafts of light in the background is one of my favourites. This scene was actually shot by Haskell Wexler, who famously had to fill in for Almendros after he left to shoot another film in Europe after “Days of Heaven” ran overlong. Wexler’s achievements coming on to finish the film and seamlessly blending his footage with Almendros’ are remarkable as well.

“Days of Heaven” was released in 1978, yet the film was shot in 1976 and took two years to edit. I salivate at the thought of what was left on the cutting room which apparently included more details of the plot and likely more sumptuous photography. But adding footage to “Days of Heaven” is like adding inches to the Mona Lisa, it’s a work of art. It’s now the equivalent of an Ansel Adams photograph or an Andrew Wyeth portrait.

I have a list of films I need to see on the big screen. I was too young to see the film in the theatres when it was original released and I’ve missed every chance to see it on the big screen at various festivals and revivals in town over the years. “Days of Heaven” is at the top of this list. But with today’s big screen TVs the experience of “Days of Heaven” can as wonderful as ever. It’s mandatory viewing. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Days of Heaven


sophomorecritic said...

I was just thinking about this film because i had to vote for the online film community top 100 and this film is borderline in my personal 100, probably closer to the bottom of it. It's a great film that makes me appreciate the filmmaker, but I think I like The New World more. I was just reading the synopsis and essays on the Badlands (the only Terrence Malick film I haven't seen) and suddenly thought that that was more interesting so i voted for that instead and Days of Heaven was my last film cut from the list. I added Clockwork Orange instead

Anonymous said...

Great review of Days of Heaven. One of those films that is a visual emersion, where the plot is very secondary. The low light scenes of harvesting in the dusk on the rolling prairie are among the most memorable I've ever seen. I agree, it really is a must for seeing on a big screen if possible.

Anonymous said...

Glad to be reminded of this one. FYI: Criterion is coming out with a new DVD edition in October.