March 2014 Blind Spot: Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)

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Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.” – Linda, Days of Heaven

The next film in my Blind Spot series is Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. This 1978 film has been hailed as one of the most beautiful films ever made because of its wonderful cinematography for which it won an Academy Award. The film takes place at the beginning of the 20th century and tells the story of a poor young man, Bill, played by Richard Gere, looking for work together with his lover, Abby, played Brooke Adams, and his sister, Linda, played by Linda Manz. The film is narrated by Linda and presents their lives working on a Texas farm to harvest crops. The owner played by Sam Shepard, who suffers from an illness that will soon kill him, takes an interest in Abby and falls in love with her. Seeing it as an opportunity for a better life, Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer so that they can inherit his fortune after he dies.
The problem is that the farmer is getting better and doesn’t show any signs of the terrible illness anymore which provokes a tension between the two lovers. The situation gets more complicated as Abby begins to develop feelings for the farmer who becomes suspicious of the relationship between the two who pretended all along to be siblings to prevent gossip.

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I must say this was an extremely wonderful film. With more viewings in the future it may very well be one of my favorite films. The story is very simple but beautifully told using picturesque visuals, gorgeous soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, talented performers and interesting narration. The narration stands out because of the great use of voice over which makes this rather simple story feel like a folk or a cautionary tale . Also the way the story unfolds without explaining too much makes it mysterious and more beautiful. It’s easier to get attached to the characters.
This film is a big gap in my film education and I am very glad that I finally saw it. I love Malick’s previous film Badlands as well as his recent success The Tree of Life. Obviously Days of Heaven is more similar to Badlands than his recent films, but I still found glimpses of his current work. I recently saw To The Wonder which was extremely boring and self-important, but when I was watching Days of Heaven I recognized the way the camera flows and almost dances around the actors like in To The Wonder. It was visible in only a couple of scenes but I recognized it immediately.

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The actors’ work was crucial to the success of this film. Richard Gere, in one if his early roles, plays Bill, the loving but jealous lover. He also is affectionate towards his sister, Linda. This is a great performance from Gere of whom I didn’t think of much as an actor. I always thought of him as the guy who plays only good looking lawyers and millionaires. Probably my view of his work is altered by seeing only his roles in Primal Fear, Pretty Woman and Chicago. I feel some actors have more interesting performances at the beginning of their careers and once they settle on a pattern they stay that way. This might not be necessarily the case with Gere, but it certainly seems so if you look at his most famous roles. I appreciate his work here bringing in a multicolored character, showing more than what he is known for.

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Brooke Adams plays Abby, the beautiful young woman torn between two men who love her. I know this phrase makes the film sound like a sweeping war melodrama, but it is appropriate to Abby’s situation. The only film I saw Adams in was the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, also released in 1978, which I highly recommend for her performance and as well as for the film itself which is a fine rethinking of an already great film. In Days of Heaven she brings a depth to her character that makes us understand her intentions better.

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Linda Manz, who is also the narrator, plays Linda, Bill’s younger sister. Voice over doesn’t work every time but here it is essential to the storytelling. There are many phrases that I liked from her narration like the one at the top of the article. Another favorite quote is “There were people sufferin’ in pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin’ out of their mouths.” She is a genuinely good person who cares for the people around her which makes her character even more endearing and it was great to see this story through her eyes.
Sam Shepard who plays The Farmer has probably the most nuanced performance. He plays the victim, the innocent in the story. I liked his natural portrayal of the good man. It may seem as an easy job to play a good person but Shepard makes The Farmer more real and his story more affecting.

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The most famous aspect of Days of Heaven is by far the cinematography. I was blown away by the beauty of those fields and how Malick and cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler transformed those pictures in moving paintings. They are that beautiful. The best and most famous scene is the one with the locusts which really does look like a painting. But the posters look awful, it deserved better.
Also, the soundtrack from the great Ennio Morricone works wonderfully with the visuals. It brings the spirit of a folk tale to life. Strangely, the first track reminded me of the Harry Potter soundtrack.

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As I was writing the review I realized I won’t be saying more than what people usually think of this film. My opinion of it is extremely positive and it will get only greater as time passes and the my memory of the film sinks in deeper in my head. Its importance is undeniable. Days of Heaven is an essential piece of cinema.

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3 comments

  1. Really solid review here, and I kind of love your final paragraph. It can be so hard to add anything to the discussion regarding classic films. All’s we can do is say what we feel, and hope it rings true for some people. This review rings true to me, and I’m thankful I got to read your views on the film!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed reading my review! Thank you so much for the kind words! It means a lot to me.
      I guess if there is nothing more to add to the discussion about this wonderful film all we can do is spread the word and make as many people see it and enjoy it. It’s a must see.

      Like

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