When watching Days of Heaven, you have to imagine it like a pot of chili. The ingredients it takes to make chili good is just like the film. You have multiple set pieces, actors, and plots; like you need spices, vegetables, beans, and meat all simmering in a pot together. It takes a lot of time for the ingredients to cook, allowing each ingredient to release during that time, introducing each part at different time. The result is an explosion of taste the longer the pot simmers. This is what a Terrence Malick film is about, you let everything slowly move over time as it establishes all the pieces. Once this has been accomplished, the buildup is an explosion of massive flavor and art.
Days of Heaven is a movie primarily shot in Alberta, Canada in 1978, directed by Terrence Malick, and starring a very young Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams, and Linda Manz. Set in the early 20th century, in Texas, as Gere, Adams, and Manz work harvesting crops for a wealthy farmer. What unfolds is a romantic drama of a triangle of love between Gere, Adams, and Shepards characters. This is the setup up for the massive feast on the eyes of the cinematography and mise en scene.
The mise en scene is of the past with many classic settings like farm machines, trains, and billowing farm lands with an old house and wheat fields aplenty. Gere’s character Bill, even though shown as a poor industrial and farm worker, he is typically dressed quite dignified, feeling as though he deserves more than he has. Brooke Adams as Abby plays a very soft spoken character, lesser dressed, yet very beautiful woman following Gere as they hide their love for one another, acting as brother and sister.
Adams is the plot device used in the film that pulls the strength out of both Shepards dying, yet wealthy farmer and Gere’s poor man, who wants more characters. She is what drives both of them to make the choices throughout the film. Manz character Linda is used as a narrator, describing the situations as they unfold in a dramatic manner throughout the film, but within an innocence of a child. The scenes are narrated with an explanation of things told to her by others and also how subtly she views them in a naiveté only seen through a child’s eyes.
Everything has a very classic and country feel to it. Touched with very little technology and everything is worked on by hand, except for when harvesting wheat, a train ride, motorcycle, and bi-plane/tri-planes.
The cinematography of Days of Heaven is the full course meal of the film. With its sweeping shots of the lands and environments, medium shots of the characters with them being presented as a center of the scene, and low angled shots of characters through their emotion development. The scenes make the film look like a painting or photograph with each shot being thought out with precision and a critical eye. Every shot in the film tries to capture the right beauty or emotion conveyed to the viewer. This is what leaves a lasting impression and leaves you looking back at the film trying to understand as a viewer why is this film so powerful.
My view of this film is a lead by example approach. They took the idea of what they wanted to convey, and executed it perfectly to the audience. Making each shot count, or feel like they are all necessary is difficult. This is perhaps why Mallick takes so long in producing films. He wants to make sure every shot, every line, every character is developed so it will impact you as the film moves from one scene to the next.
This is what is called a slow burn film. You don’t know which way things will go for the characters. Each piece slowly progresses itself into moments of beauty and tension, not knowing who is going to stay, who will die, how long will everything last, where will the critical moments be with such a subtle release of each part of the story. Even in the end, the characters left are not given a resolution and that leaves a feeling of being unsettled.
I have my ups and downs with Terrence Malick. His films are considered to be slow going and feels like they go on forever. With Days of Heaven, the story is consistent for the 1st and 2nd acts, but the end resolution is something that leaves you pondering what is going to happen to everyone and why did it happen this way? I think it is about seeing the scope of a poem on a big screen, leaving the audience up to their own resolution and giving us beautiful set pieces and shots for the whole film. The scope of this film is truly a piece of art and gives everything an important role, from the subtle wind blowing in the wheat fields, to the energetic exhibition of the flying circus.
Terrence Malick actually drew his inspiration through turn of the century paintings, including Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, which can explain the feeling of this film feeling like a painting.