Days of Heaven is that second album that is so hard to make. The album that has so much to live up to; the album that has such large shoes to fill. Days of Heaven, however, does not fall short of its predecessor Badlands – Days of Heaven is Led Zeppelin II to Badlands‘s Led Zeppelin I. Terrence Malick manages to dazzle his audience once again with his patient storytelling and epic imagery.
Taking home the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Days of Heaven was widely considered one of the most visually appealing films to ever be made at the time of its release in 1978. Under Malick’s impeccable direction, Nestor Almendros captures some of the most impressive shots that I have ever witnessed. One particular scene took my breath away – in which the farmer (Sam Shepard) ignites his entire field of crops causing a massive fire. The screen of my laptop was engulfed in violent flames and I was truly stricken with a brief, but intense, sense of panic as I watched the fire rage.
This scene is also tremendously crucial in terms of both plot and symbolism. It is vital to the plot because it is at this moment that the trajectory of the film does a complete one-eighty. It is in this moment that the audience realizes that the farmer is aware of the con that Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are trying to pull on him – although, yes, Abby does eventually fall in love with the farmer, but when he sees Bill and Abby kiss he becomes enraged. The farmer is driven to near-insanity, burning his crops and then deciding to try to kill Bill. When he fails, and Bill kills him instead, Bill and Abby and Bill’s kid sister Linda (Linda Manz) are forced on the run. This, in turn, results in Bill’s shooting by the police, who have been searching for him.
This scene is also remarkably symbolic, and it is in this way that the film is perhaps most impressive. The film’s tagline: “You’ve got to go through Hell before you get to Heaven,” reveals how the scene with the raging flames depicts Hell, itself, with the mad farmer reigning over his kingdom of fire as the devil. Furthermore, the Biblical-esque plague of grasshoppers scene that immediately preludes the crop fire scene represents death, as all the crops are killed by the grasshoppers. Thus, Bill and Abby and Linda must die, then go through Hell before they can reach the pearly gates of Heaven – the ability to move on with their lives. Of course, however, Bill can never do this.
The performances in Days of Heaven are all laudable, but most credit is due to Richard Gere. In his portrayal of Bill, with all his anger, all his envy and lust, it is clear that Gere fully delves into his character. He is almost a menacing character is various instances, yet he levies his anger with a few subtle comedic one-liners, which Gere delivers with the tone of a mischievous jokester. Most of all, however, Bill is disappointed and unsatisfied with the way life has treated him. He recalls being a child, thinking that one day he’d “hit a big score.” But as man, he realizes he isn’t as smart and capable as he once thought he was; he realizes the world isn’t what he thought it was. Ultimately, Gere portrays a man who is pissed off, who has killed but didn’t want to, who has so much rage but only wants to find peace. Bill’s story is a truly tragic one. All he wants in the world is to give his kid sister and the love of his life, Abby, an easy life and to be seen in their eyes as their hero.
The score is brilliant as well, written and composed by Ennio Morricone. Morricone, as usual, writes a fantastic score that adds plenty to the film without commanding any distracting attention. What I mean is this: in most films that have good scores, the audience is at least somewhat distracted from fully following the acting, the dialogue, imagery, and all the like because they are thinking to themselves that what they are hearing is really fantastic. However, in Days of Heaven, one is not consciously aware of the impact the score is having on the intensity or serenity of a particular scene until he or she closely reflects on the scene after having seen it. Of course, in two scenes, one toward the beginning and one toward the end, not much is going on and a folk guitar sound is heard and dominates the scene. However, in these scenes there is nothing to be distracted from, and the song successfully becomes something of a theme song of the film, being played at the opening and then again at the closing.
Finally, one should take note of who is narrating the film. It is not Bill or Abby or even the farmer. It is Linda, the young girl forced to grow and mature too quickly. In my opinion, it’s Linda’s story that packs the most powerful emotional punch of the film. She tells the story as it is. It “used to just be me and my brother” she says. As the film progresses she is forced to go from the simple innocence of living with her older, protective brother in Chicago in pre-WWI era U.S. of A to experiencing a vast range of emotions. She is forced to work to the bone on the farmer’s farm, smoking cigarettes and cursing, to the living in the farmer’s picturesque home, to finally watching her older brother being shot dead by the police. Her story is of a child forced to become an adult long before she should have to.
Days of Heaven is a powerful, patient piece driven by incredible visual imagery, and it’s one of the finest examples of Terrence Malick’s devotion to his craft.