Days of Heaven is the second film from Terrence Malick, and probably his most accessible and aesthetically stunning film.
Heaven follows Bill (Richard Gere), a fugitive from Chicago who tries to make a new life for himself, his little sister (Linda Manz), and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) in the wheat fields of West Texas. Having killed a factory worker, Bill is propelled westward in search of a new start—a redemptive return to Eden. The trio arrive at a farm and start their blissful new life there as fieldworkers, until the Farmer (Sam Shepherd) falls in love with Abby and an unstable love triangle forms. From there, the film plays out in the precarious borderlands between love and jealousy, depravity and redemption, and the particularly Malick-ian terrains of grounded earth and infinite sky.
Set in 1916, Heaven has been read by some as being a statement about the onset of modernism and the death of the pastoral myth. Others focus on Heaven’s incredible visual style, aptly suggesting that the film’s Oscar-winning cinematography (much of it shot on 70mm film) is among the most beautiful of all time. Still others interpret the film within the American paradigm of manifest destiny—the ubiquitous images of iconic open spaces (amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty define the typical vista in the film) providing an elegiac photo essay of a country hoped for, but not quite achieved.
The question of just what Terrence Malick intended this film to be is still a mystery (Malick never comments on his work), and critics and essayists have rarely agreed on what this monumental film means. What is generally accepted is that Malick, in each of his four films but especially in Heaven, aims to bring cinema back to its humblest origins, of presenting unmediated reality by focusing our attention on image and sound rather than narrative. The film shows Malick’s affinity for the silent era in this regard—his understanding of cinema as chiefly a “physical” (not mental) experience that should elicit wonder before any impulse to interpret or understand its meaning.
The director’s background in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (which he studied at Oxford and MIT prior to becoming a filmmaker) becomes evident in such style. Heidegger believed in the early Greek notion that the world should not be experienced as a collection of substances to master and analyze, but as a groundless source of mystery. Heidegger and devotee Malick (he translated some of the German existentialist’s significant works) share the idea that the world reveals itself to us through our moods and emotion, not cognition and rationalism. “Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves,” wrote Heidegger in his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” “Color shines and wants only to shine… when we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone.” Thus, it is easier to grasp Malick’s emphasis on flowing imagery and sensory-heavy cinema—films not as interested in how the world is, but that it is.
While Malick’s first film, 1973’s Badlands, invokes Adam/Eve mythology, Heaven more closely mirrors the Cain/Abel incident. Bill is provoked by a stinging jealousy of Sam Shepherd’s character, the Farmer. Bill also mirrors Cain in the setting of his murderous attack: the isolated midst of a field. The parallel continues in that he must leave the ranch (Eden) and hide from the authorities (God), shamed by the recognition that—as he proclaims to Abby—“He knows!”
This delicate shift in man’s internal relationship to evil is symbolically seen in the film’s external images of nature, which contextualize the existential dilemmas of the characters. While dominated by impossibly beautiful nature shots and sounds (blowing wheat, rippling brooks, golden sunsets, grazing bison) the “avenging power” in nature, which will be further explored in The Thin Red Line, is also introduced. The plague of locusts (another biblical reference) on the wheat crop and the subsequent fire in the fields demonstrate the hellish potential in nature—further demonstrative of the precarious balance between depravity and divinity which Malick so poetically explores. The nature in Heaven envelops you in its transcendent beauty while at the same time exerting an unsettling aura of control: “Often it is an undulating sea of grass or wheat which opens itself up without resistance to human encroachment, yet defeats all attempts at mastery,” wrote Bill Schaffer in Senses of Cinema.
It is man doing battle with himself—trying to overcome nature with will; recognizing that the two can never be separate. Indeed, Malick’s camera frequently frames his characters within—almost at one with—the wheat fields. As the actors walk in and among the golden waves of wheat, the mobile camera flows organically around the scene, grounding the humans in the nature they are threshing. Like in The New World, which uses the upward metaphor of the tree to evoke human perseverance and longing, Heaven equates the being of humanity with the being of wheat: in both there is growth, harvest, resilience and redemption.
There is a deep unsettledness to the film, however—a nagging unease pervading its abundant beauty. An early shot in the film captures it well: as a group of white-clad priests consecrate the fields at sunset, hundreds of observing field hands (cloaked in mourner’s black) stand intermittently throughout the wheat—like charred tree stumps in a devastated, though rejuvenating, forest. Similarly striking images of dark and light abound in the film (black horses dusted by a coat of white snow, for example)—adding to the paradoxical tension of evil invading Eden, sin disturbing innocence, and the precarious balance of good and bad within every living thing. Near the end of the film, Linda Manz sums it up in voiceover: “Nobody’s a perfect person … You got half devil and half angel in you.”
With its emphasis on the duality of nature and by association man, Days of Heaven envelops us in the lack and loss of Paradise. As reflected in its title, heaven is temporal in the film—an all too evanescent state of dwelling. The film thus exudes a palpable Edenic yearning—a longing to recapture our lost wholeness of being. In the meantime, we are stuck in a world where the glory and avenging power in nature are both intensely evident—a troubling paradox in which, Malick infers, ultimate reconciliation can be achieved only in death.
Death, so prevalent in Malick’s films, is the resolution to the knowing guilt of the innate depravity that characterizes our natural existence. But transcendence is possible before that point, if one can make peace with the dualistic battle within nature and self—a battle stemming from the feeling that things are upside down—that our insistent nature is strangely contradictory to the divine spark within. And thus we are constantly asking questions about evil and ontology—where we came from, what’s this evil, and why?
For me, the real value of Malick and a film like Days of Heaven is that it raises these sorts of “big questions,” but not directly or didactically. Rather, the questions tend to flow organically out of the visceral experience of what’s on screen. When I watch Heaven, for example, I feel something in my gut—something about the presence of God through His seeming absence. Something about my own wretchedness and deformed beauty. But however melancholy that may sound, it is films like this that expand and enliven my salvation—channeling truth through beauty and making grace all the more majestic.