By Afra Nariman
Days of Heaven (1978)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, Linda Manz, Sam Shepard
A poetic reflection on the early years of the 19th century that tells the story of a farm laborer who convinces the woman he loves to marry their rich boss who is dying. They plan on doing so in order to have a claim to his fortune after he passes, but complications arise.
Narrated and told from the point of view of a young teenage girl recounting the memories of her days on an isolated farm in the country with her older brother and the woman he loved; Days of Heaven is like an animated slideshow of vivid and immersive moving images that are conducted by the film’s vast landscapes, emphasis on the simplicity of the time period, the peaceful sublimity of nature and its melodic soundtrack that orchestrates the unparalleled flow of the film. The collaboration between all of these elements, along with the film’s explored themes of love, morality, time and change, leads this film to be communicated as a reflective screen poem that effortlessly puts us in a mystical trance that is practically ineffable.
The story is very simple, as is many of the elements that make Days of Heaven an All-Time great film. Bill (played by Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (played by Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (played by Linda Manz), travel and find work on a farm. In order to avoid the eyes of their peers and being the topic of gossip amongst the laborers, Abby poses as the third sibling of Bill and Linda. They work tirelessly on a farm during the months of harvest, keeping Bill and Abby’s love a secret from everyone. Simultaneously, Bill overhears a conversation that reveals that their boss, “The Farmer,” is approaching his death. It isn’t too long until Abby’s beauty and charisma catches the farmer’s eye. Hoping to make an impression on her, the farmer asks Abby to stay on his farm with him after the harvest is finished — even permitting her “brother” and “sister” to stay with them. After speaking about the offer with Bill, the two lovers become con-artists of sorts. Seeking to live a more comfortable and affluent lifestyle, they decide that Abby should marry the dying farmer in order to have a claim to his fortune. In the time following their decision, the three travelers are living as happily as ever on the farm. Our narrator, Linda expresses the joy and easiness that she felt while living on the farm, wealthy and comfortable. For her, these were the Days of Heaven. Soon though, as is always true with love, complications make their way into the story. Without giving away too much; the last 25-30 minutes of the film crescendos into intensity and leads us to a climactic end to our otherwise peaceful story, all while never relinquishing it’s poetic flow. It seems as though it is going to end peacefully and happily for the protagonists, but ends exhilaratingly tragically instead, forcing a change in direction in the characters’ stories.
As I mentioned, it is the film’s emphasis on nature and how it portrays it that creates such a dreamlike ambiance around the entirety of the film. Filled with transitional scenes featuring close up shots of animals, insects and plants — with the vast infinity of nature’s landscape serving as the frame to this visual poem of a film — a moment doesn’t go by when you aren’t absorbed into nature’s sublimity. Linda’s narrations also feed into the film’s ability to take control of our senses. Like any good writing, her short, but descriptive accounts of what is being painted on the screen’s canvas enables us to not only see and hear what the film is illustrating, but to feel it and relate to it. Near the end of the film, we are given one particularly detailed description of the nature that they are experiencing, and we are seeing. She narrates;
One of the most understated and subtle elements of nature’s influence on the film is the amount of pure silence that often times beautifully haunts the scenes. In the 21st century, there are only a few places in the world that can offer us pure silence, but back in 1916, on an isolated farm in the country, silence was a constant. The silence I’m talking about isn’t the silence that you experience today, at night time, when your television is turned off. It’s the type of silence that can only be found in nature, as it is portrayed in this film. This type of silence is so silent that you can essentially hear, or feel its effects.
Just as the film is fully adherent to the blissful sublimity of nature, as it is to the liveliness of humanity. Aside from the many transitional scenes that depict nature, animals and insects, there are also transitional scenes featuring buoyant music and spirited dancing to go along with it. The film’s mystical balance between being full of nature, yet fully human, is heavenly, and is the reason why this film is able to be so immersive in the way that it is received by us as a narrative poem.
One of the thematic elements of the film that brings the two (nature and humanity) together is the idea of growth, evolution or change. All things change over time, they grow and evolve. Nothing is permanent, especially not in nature and especially not in the lives of human beings. Some of the many aspects of the film that adhere to that sentiment are: the overall plot topic of farming and harvest, relationships and love, and time and nature. The natural seasons impact the schedule of a farmer and when harvest takes place. The essence and strength of a relationship and of love can change and evolve over time, as evidenced by the complicated love triangle between Bill, Abby and the farmer. Lastly, time and nature orchestrate our entire world and our existence. They dictate the growth, the change and the evolution of everything. In one of the many beautiful transitional scenes, we see the growth of a plant over time to signify the passing of time. The film also highlights that this change doesn’t always reflect growth, but can also be destructive, as illustrated by the infestation of insects that ruin the farm’s harvest, and a fire that signifies this notion of destruction and the overall fragility of nature.
Another deeply enveloped element, intrinsically, of the story depicts the constant tug-of-war between good and evil in humanity — the idea of morality. In the very beginning, one of Linda’s first few narrated monologues is a description of the Last Judgement:
This description sets the tone for what’s to come. In many ways, the unexpected raging fire near the film’s end that I mentioned earlier, represents what is given to us in this introductory quote. Bill and Abby, having conned the farmer, see their “world” go up in flames. Although the farm was not theirs, it was their original plan to marry Abby to the farmer so that one day it would be. Throughout the film, Abby is constantly aware of the immorality that she is a part of. Early in their marriage, the farmer compliments Abby by saying:
“You’re like an angel.”
To which Abby responds,
“I wish I was.”
In the end of the story, Linda mentions that Abby blames herself for much of the misery that has been inflicted upon those around her. She realizes that she has made mistakes, she acted immorally and in concert with the evil side of humanity. One of Linda’s last few monologues closes the chapter of the story in regards to the idea of morality that was ushered in by her early description of the Last Judgement, and explored all throughout the film. She reflects:
Just as nature can evolve over time, through growth or destruction; human nature participates in a constant ebb and flow between good and evil — all we can hope to do is learn from our mistakes, think through our capacity for morality and do our best to act through the inherent good in us more so than the evil that can often times creep up on us when we don’t take into account the consequences of our actions on both ourselves and those around us.
Days of Heaven is one of the most mystically beautiful films that you will watch. It’s simple and sublime, reflective and philosophical, and it immerses you in both nature and human spirit. It’s slow, but never feels dragged. Through incredibly vivid and contextual descriptions of nature, director Terrence Malick enables us to experience the sublimity of the film’s visual components in ways that most films cannot do. As it is a reflective story from Linda’s memory, the film doesn’t explore the full extent of the gravity of each and every emotional moment for the characters, but instead absorbs our attention and engagement with the film through masterful storytelling, poetic fluidity and genius filmmaking elements such as its use of music, silence and cinematography. Days of Heaven manages to capture life in its entirety; the good, the bad, growth, destruction, nature and humanity. It is a breath of fresh air in cinema.