Three months after tackling Apocalypse Now, I attempt to wrap my head around Days Of Heaven, a film released in the same year, and born of similar indulgences. It's another ambitious, lumbering Look Back essay, but this time I grapple with Terrence Malick the filmmaker. Why is he treated with such reverence, when he's only made 5 films - and, indeed, when those films have been so divisive?
As Terrence Malick enjoys what could be the most attention he’s attracted in three decades (or, by his measure, three films) with this year’s divisive art flick Tree Of Life, the BFI are releasing a restoration of Days Of Heaven, one of the two films that made his reputation in the 1970s, before his two-decade hiatus from the industry that lasted until 1998’s The Thin Red Line.
In Days Of Heaven, a too-brooding, too-handsome Richard Gere stars as Bill, a young worker who, after a fatal tussle with a steel mill foreman, gathers up his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) and abandons 1916 Chicago to harvest crops out West. Posing as siblings, the trio work for a rich, terminally ill farmer (Sam Shepard), who soon takes a shine to Abby. Spying an easy route to fortune, Bill convinces Abby to indulge the farmer’s advances, so they can score his lands once he croaks.
The film is not so much driven by plot, as it is by imagery, and the Academy Award-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros (with additional photography from Haskell Wexler) is utterly compelling. Resisting soft-focus, picture card representations of rolling corn fields and rural tranquility, the film’s look is very much a dusty, early 20th century counterpart to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with its painterly approach to exterior landscapes, location shooting and natural light.
Especially in this painstaking restoration, the shots that Malick, Almendros and crew come up with are consistently breathtaking, whether they be of endless vistas, scenes of harvesting, or a scarecrow silhouetted against the twilight sky.
However, Malick is often overwhelmed by his ambitious sense of scale. And while this makes for some quite effective broad-stroke moments, on a personal level the film seems remarkably superficial. A surprising amount of the film’s deep emotional effectiveness comes from external, post-production sources. The wistful, homespun framing is entirely a product of the meandering, semi-improvised narration (recorded long after the fact with Linda Manz), and the recurring motifs from Leo Kottke’s buzzing, droning twelve-string guitar.
Indeed, even the film’s most bravura moments are indebted to Ennio Morricone, who contributes a typically exquisite score in this romantic, sometimes nostalgic set of cues. This is particularly evident in the scene where a swarm of hornets decimates the crop, with the howling, traumatised farmer dousing his livelihood in flame. Malick lets loose here, as man is suffocated by biblical plague, and chaos rages along with the fire.
It is a terrifying sight to behold, but Morricone’s score - which, reportedly, he contributed under the condition that it would remain intact - is an unsettling, operatic masterpiece, building from restrained, strangled strings and bass-heavy rumbles to an awful crescendo: a wretched march of the profane.
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