An Appreciation – Days of Heaven
There is a kind of mood in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) that draws us in without ever explicitly revealing itself. A kind of feeling, or a certain kind of tone, pervades every moment of the film; we can sense it without really specifying what it is. Could it be the result of the great cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler? Or is it the haunting score by Ennio Morricone? Perhaps it is the philosophical approach Malick takes toward this material, regarding man’s relationship with man, or man’s spiritual relationship with nature? Maybe it is a combination of all these factors, but what makes this film brilliant is how, while having the ability to draw us in, it still keeps us at arm’s length. We watch the story unfold at a distance, like a silent voyeur. And in this way, Malick crafted a film resembling that of a loving memory; like a time and place that has long passed that we wish to somehow return to.
The key to achieving this tone lies in the perspective of the person telling us its story. Yes, the main action involves the adults, but the heart of the film revolves around the young character of Linda (Linda Manz). An eccentric, quirky, and intelligent kid, Linda is always around, even if the events happening do not involve her. In a kind of isolated voice, we hear Linda (through voiceover narration) describe everything she thinks, sees, and feels throughout the film’s duration. This is a fine line to walk; narration that only tells us what is happening on screen serves as a useless tool, but Linda’s narration is thoughtful, whimsical, and wise beyond her years. She enhances what we see on screen instead of simply describing it. We regard moments in the film with more clarity, because through her eyes we see a world presented through a filter of youth and naïveté. In a way, the emotional detachment we feel from the story is because its narrator witnessed it from a detached point of view. What we see has the mood of a memory, because it feels as though Linda describes it long after the events took place. To put it simply, this is a film of Linda’s very own memory.
The movie takes place at the turn of the twentieth century. The opening credits are fascinating to see. Separate from the actual storyline, Malick starts the film with a slide show of pictures taken during this time frame. We see young men, women, and children, inhabiting a world that is moving very quickly toward industrialization. We see buildings, factories, and automobiles in the photographs, and although he never explains it to us literally, we soon get a sense of Malick’s appreciation of nature against the rise of the technological age. These pictures harbor countless stories of American life in a changing world, the characters of the film acting only as a small portion. Those characters are Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), two lovers who, along with Linda, who is Bill’s younger sister, work and scrap to survive on the rugged streets of Chicago. Early on, we see Bill working in a steel mill, and during an altercation with the mill’s foreman, he accidentally kills him. Desperate, Bill, along with Abby and Linda, escapes by train southward to the Texas panhandle, where they find work harvesting the wheat fields of a wealthy farmer, played by Sam Shepard.
Interestingly enough, Bill and Abby decide to tell everyone that they are siblings as well. Very quickly, suspicions arise about the relationship between Bill and Abby, with one scene involving a fight between Bill and another field worker who was quick to throw out an insult about the two. This presents us with an interesting question: why exactly do Bill and Abby decide to describe themselves as siblings? According to Linda, “you know how people are. You tell ‘em something, they start talking.” Is it because they wanted to avoid any authorities that were looking for a couple and a young girl responsible for the foreman’s death? That seems to be the likely answer, but Bill and Abby surely do not do a good job of hiding their true identities, as we see them in a number of lovely and tender moments. This mild attempt at deception, with two lovers trying to pretend that they aren’t, sets up the main tension of the film.
The farmer (who is actually named “The Farmer”) soon becomes attracted to the beautiful Abby, even inviting her to stay with him after the harvesting season is over. Here is where the story takes an interesting turn. Bill, while attempting to steal some medicine from a visiting doctor’s coach, overhears a conversation between the doctor and the farmer. The farmer is ill, there is no cure, and the doctor predicts he has only about a year left to live. Sick of living meal to meal and dreadfully fighting to earn a living, Bill suggests that Abby accept the farmer’s offer: she will pretend to fall in love with him, even going so far as marrying him, and when he dies, the two will live happily ever after with his wealth. Of course, in movies, things never go as planned, and as the farmer continues to live, Abby soon becomes enchanted by the wealth and romance of her new life, to the point of actually falling in love with the farmer. “Instead of getting sicker,” Linda explains, “he just stayed the same. The doctor must of give him some pills or something.” The rest of the film involves the love triangle between these people, with Bill increasingly growing with jealousy and impatience, Abby torn between two men she loves, and the farmer slowly coming to the realization that the two may not be who they say they are.