I finally got my Terrence Malick fix. After more than a month since seeing The Thin Red Line, I was able to come across his 1978 film about migrant workers from the early twentieth century. It starts out with a series of sephia and black and white still photos of urban poor at work and play. I am assuming this is to get us in the mood for the rest of the film by providing context and perhaps to develop feelings towards the protagonists (or antagonists if you think about it) before we even meet them. Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are a couple from Chicago trying to find seasonal work. While on the train ride out to the Oklahoma Panhandle, they pretend to be brother and sister to avoid the gossip of their soon-to-be co-workers. The movie is narrated by Bill's little sister, Linda (Linda Manz). She parallels Sissy Spacek's character in another Malick movie: Badlands. Both are young girls with hypnotic voices that appear simple at first glance, but manage to impress the audience with their deep thoughts while telling the story clear in their respective vernaculars. Though the story is primarily concerned with the love triangle between Bill, Abby, and the Farmer (Sam Shepard), we never can forget about Linda for more than half a scene before see chimes in with that uncharacteristic, but comforting voice.
The love triangle, above mentioned develops when the farmer, a rich, new money, but honest man, notices Abby working in the field. As Linda says "maybe it was the way that the wind flowed through her hair," but the farmer falls for her on the spot. As everyone knows (but one fight scene suggests some suspect otherwise) Abby is single, because Bill is merely her brother. Bill, a life long manual laborer, sees this as an opportunity to not have to take the first train out of the panhandle when the season ends. This is catalyzed by the fact that Bill is sick and will most likely die within the next few years. He pushes Abby to pretend to be wooed by the farmer. In short time they get married. Bill and Linda are allowed to remain by relation. They spend their days by playing in the river, hunting for quail, and admiring the fields of golden wheat that stretch as far as the sea. But trouble in paradise develops. For further details, please reference the movie.
Days of Heaven is like other Malick films in several regards. In addition to the young female narrator, there is plenty of natural cinematography. We see dozens of shots of grasshoppers, birds, prairies, mountains, and rivers. A theme is his films that I believe is meant not only to reward his viewers with aesthetics, but also to remind them of the role of geography. The laborers are outside all day collecting hay, when they are at play, it usually by the river. Even in winter, we see the progression of Abby and her family first sleeping under bales in the open air (before the marriage) and later going on horse drawn carriages through the snow (after the marriage). Towards the end of the movie, there is a powerful scene of the farmer sending his laborers to swat the fields of all the grasshoppers and other pests, this is followed by a fire. The scene is belligerent and gives suggestions of things to come for the human animals in the movie as well.
The film also shows a change of the female protagonist throughout the film. Though they never smile much, they become more feminine. Linda dresses like a boy in the beginning, but blossoms into a pretty girl by the middle of the movie. This is most evident in the way see wears her hair, but the lighting and camera angles are also exploited for this purpose. There is much more darkness on her figure in the beginning and there are no clear shots of her lower half, so it is ambiguous whether or not she is wearing a skirt or pants.Her voice is border line boy-girl as well.
Also like Badlands is the way that the characters seem to take advantage of fate on a whim. Both films start this chain of events when the male protagonist decides that their current situation is not good enough and that action must be taken.
This film won an Academy Award for best cinematography, something that Terrence Malick has mastered in all his films, and was nominated for several others. So in addition to being a film worth watching for its own sake, it can also be used to observe Malick's growth as a filmmaker over the course of four decades. Days of Heaven (1978) is much more similar to Badlands (1973) than it is to The Thin Red Line (1998). Over the course of thirty years, Malick lost his storytelling ability to an extent. Though he covers all the technical bases with precision just the same. His slow moving movies do not have the ability to draw the viewer in as well. Where it was previously designed in such a way that the audience is intrigued despite a relatively uneventful plot, it is slightly boring in his late films. However, Days of Heaven still possesses the charm that turned me on to this writer/director in the first place.