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Days of Heaven | reviews, news & interviews

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick's groundbreaking second film remains a miracle of beauty and brevity

'Days of Heaven': Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Terrence Malick's American classic

Days of Heaven made Terrence Malick’s legend. Released four years after his relatively conventional lovers-on-the-run debut Badlands (1974), it gave a similar story transcendental themes and images of painterly gorgeousness. Then he directed nothing else for 20 years. Choosing not to engage with interviews or celebrity, like Pynchon and Salinger he vanished into mystery and silence.

Relative productivity since means this Malick-approved new print is issued in the wake of his fifth film, The Tree of Life. Badlands is the Malick you’re most likely to have seen, a Springsteen-referenced slice of dark Americana. Its commercially failed successor survived as reputation and rumour. Brought back, it doesn’t disappoint.

Filmed in 1976, it’s set 60 years before in the Texas Panhandle, where young lovers Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), and her sister Linda (Linda Manz), flee from Chicago’s industrial hell to take in the harvest. The couple claim to be siblings, and when the land’s owner (Sam Shepard), who Bill finds has been given a year to live, falls for Abby, Bill encourages her to marry into the riches that will surely be theirs.

Nestor Almendros’s Oscar-winning cinematography is certainly luminous. Malick had him film whenever possible in the “magic hour” (20 minutes, really) of beautiful twilight, which cast and crew would spend the day feverishly readying for. A harvest moon is piercingly yellow, black horses are dusted by snow, and sun and candles light Shepard’s house on a hill. Gere, an unknown hopeful in 1976, and Adams, with her odd, upturned half-moon smile, are equally, naturally gorgeous.

days-of-heaven-posterBut Days of Heaven isn’t just picturesque. That reputation neglects the tightening dramatic noose around its lovers. The trio’s careless autumn idyll once harvest is over becomes heavy with sin and guilt. There’s more than a touch of The Postman Always Rings Twice’s noir doom, though these characters are less malign. Shepard’s unnamed illness is suspended by love for his new wife, then he sickens in mind and body as he only half-blinds himself to her cuckoldry. The camera rests on weather and wildlife, as impassive to the lovers’ fate as the Pacific tribesman in Malick’s eventual next film, The Thin Red Line, who lets US Marines warring on Guadalcanal pass him like ghosts. The cosmic fantasias of The Tree of Life, setting the tragedy of Brad Pitt’s 1950s family in the context of Earth’s whole existence, are Days of Heaven’s reveries blown up to infinite scale. Finally, plagues of locusts (shown in close-up as alien terrors) and fire chase the lovers downriver from their soiled Eden, repeating Badlands’ desperate flight. Their fate hurts, even as nature dwarfs it.

days-of-heavenTwo decades later, half of Hollywood queued to work with Days of Heaven’s mythical creator on The Thin Red Line. John Travolta and George Clooney mostly ended on a cutting-room floor so knee-deep in waste Malick considered making a second film to go with the 170 minutes he released. Days of Heaven is by contrast a miracle of editing (Billy Weber cut both), its 94 minutes feeling richly epic. Linda Manz’s narration (a Malick speciality, adding shape to his sometimes amorphous tales) was itself edited from 60 hours of the 16-year-old’s half-grasped impressions of the scenes she was in. As her character floats down the river, she glimpses figures on its banks. “They were probably calling for help or somethin’, or they were tryin’ to bury somebody or somethin’,” she comments flatly, feeling herself by then to be in a dark fairy-tale world.

Between Days of Heaven’s filming and its release, Star Wars all but buried the brief tradition of American art cinema that flourished in the early 1970s. Malick hibernated, but has somehow survived into 2011. Even amongst his own films, his second, digitally pared to a new perfection in this print, remains oddly, intimately grand.

Arriving in the panhandle: watch a clip from Days of Heaven

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