“But if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear you. He don’t even hear ya talkin’.”
Overwhelmed. The tagline got it right: every sense—by the end of Days of Heaven—will be overwhelmed. Terrence Malick’s second feature film is as breathtaking as you’ve heard, mesmerizing you with its sumptuous beauty until the hellish climax burns through your soul with its flames of vengeance. I seriously don’t know which is more gorgeous, the sprawling wheat fields straight from an Andrew Wyeth painting or the stark contrast of fire on the night sky, shrouded in smoke. One could call it a masterpiece without opposition due to the visuals alone, captivating its viewers whether the sound is on or not—and in many instances speech is drowned out by noise of industry or the inclusion of Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of Animals. The fact Malick’s story also grabs hold in its complex tale of love, money, and betrayal only bolsters the opinion. I almost don’t blame him for taking twenty years off until directing again because you can’t follow up something like this with just anything.
The story itself is rendered through actions as much as it is words. A lot of what occurs does so from the silent stares of emotional turmoil, speech made inconsequential when the pulsating whir of industrial machinery expresses the feelings being portrayed, enhancing it all with a deafening volume overtaking your ears. And it is jarring the first time you experience such a directorial choice, making you somewhat disoriented while wondering what exactly happened. We watch Richard Gere’s Bill sternly walking the circled path of mill workers, shoveling his coal up and looking away as he tosses it into the fire. Noise is everywhere and we see mouths moving, but no sense of the conversation besides Gere and his boss’s not-so-genial expressions, soon culminating in a sharply cut assault. Reasons are meaningless as the result of the action says it all. One man is left dead while the other runs, collecting his sister Linda (Linda Manz) and lover Abby (Brooke Adams) to flee into the country, leaving Chicago behind. It is far from the remorseless killings of Malick’s first antihero, Martin Sheen’s Kit, but that doesn’t prevent Bill from still forgetting the surge of malice in order to move forward.
Riding on the roof of trains, this trio is seen laughing, happy to go on a journey to the next chapter of their lives, wherever it may be. Robert J. Wilke’s foreman rides in to scoop up all the cheap labor he can find at the station, enlisting able citizens to come work the harvest at his boss’s farm. The work is tough and the company consists of uneducated laborers, fuses as short as Bill’s, catching on to his relationship with Abby despite them saying they are brother and sister in order to divert prying eyes. They are constantly in everyone’s sights, however, her dark black hair catching the interest of Sam Shepard’s farmer, enough to inquire around to her story before approaching timidly with the proposition to stay on after the season and be with him. The question would have been disregarded instantly, especially with Bill’s penchant for angry flashes of aggression, but he had just recently overheard the doctor tell Shephard he had about a year left to live. With a disease-ravaged suitor, fresh off his biggest yield to date on the land, Bill keeps his jealousy in check and pushes Abby to accept the offer in order to reap the benefits once he passes. What neither could ever have expected was that she would fall in love.
Malick takes us on this journey through tiny vignettes of expository imagery or quick glimpses into conversations half heard. It is all meticulously culled together into a symphony of visuals cutting from wide-lens expanses of open country against a stormy sky, to a close-up of a wild turkey or rabbit nestled between the wheat, to the convulsions of a sick man in bed, straight on forward to this complex family living under one roof—a brother and sister, separated lovers, and husband and wife. It is all so idyllic in the good fortune these poor Chicagoans have come upon, living the rich life and enjoying every minute of it. These are the Days of Heaven indeed, but as Linda shares through her voiceover narrations, as seen through the eyes of a child wise beyond her years, Heaven can only exist with a Hell opposite. The fire will arrive to consume everything in its wake, the good finding solace in an afterlife of bliss and the bad left to burn, their screams silent upon the deaf ears of God. Wilke’s foreman sees through these strangers at the endgame they seek, but Shephard is completely smitten, a dangerous fact for the evitable discovery of betrayal, his love making it unforgivable.
I still have frames of Gere’s and Shephard’s wrought faces of anguish and pain seeing the woman they love show the other affection. The true tragedy of this story is that she does in fact love them both, incapable of hurting either, but helpless in doing anything to stop it. All three of them go around in circles of happiness and jealousy, the fuel for its blow-up continuously filled higher and higher without release. At one point it seems as though perhaps love and decency would win out, the novice con artists seeing the error of their ways. But the overly affectionate farewell—the kind of physical closeness inappropriate for siblings to partake in—is seen by Shepherd’s already increasingly suspicious husband, leading to the wrath of destruction that follows. God is looking for a purge of the evil inhabiting this majestic farm resting below the uniquely stunning house at its center. The locusts move in and take a hold of the new year’s crop, the pent up rage finally having an outlet for complete annihilation. A victim becomes a hot-blooded creature capable of anything while his oppressor—coping with the fact he has been defeated—the object of his vitriol. The wheels have finally come off and the end result isn’t pretty for any of the players in this ruthless game of love.
The simple economy of plot has left an indelible mark on me. The editing is sheer genius, never allowing the audience to become comfortable until winter comes and conflict has been averted. Rather than go back to the flashes of inter-cut information after, however, the fateful combination of Mother Nature’s and Shephard’s farmer’s retribution is shown in extreme detail as an inferno literally and figuratively engulfs every last living soul. The tone set by cinematography great Néstor Almendros and continued by Haskell Wexler once he needed to move onto his next film—Malick’s extreme tardiness in finishing his work peeking through—is haunting. An image of Richard Gere, his back towards the camera looking forward into a machine blowing wheat in his direction cannot be shaken, the trail of the straw coming at the camera and veering left. There are the long shots of the farm, house in the distance and men at the foreground, with a swarm of locusts converging and flying through the sky, darkening everything in frame; the immense wall of flames shooting higher and higher into the sky; and brief moments onscreen like Shepherd shaking from anger, angled from below, or Gere splashing into the water, the camera beneath to see impact. Nothing about this film is likely to leave me any time soon.