Running from the law, seeking salvation, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams find their way to a Texas wheat field in Terrence Malicks Days of Heaven.
Malicks slice of Heaven and hell returns
By Steven Snyder
Contradictions run rampant in Terrence Malicks four films, considered by many to be some of the most beautiful movies made in the last half-century. The young couple who commits a string of murders in his first film, 1973s Badlands, couldnt differ more from cinemas standard depiction of serial killers. The ethereal contemplations of disillusioned soldiers in 1999s The Thin Red Line offsets the typical, gritty realism of war. And in last years The New World, the inescapable collision between Europeans and Native Americans is tempered by images of an incredibly peaceful, natural idyll.
Appearances are just as deceiving in 1978s Days of Heaven, which returns to Film Forum this weekend in a new 35 mm print. An early entry in Roger Eberts Great Movies series, as well as an Oscar winner for best cinematography, Heaven isnt just Malicks most beautiful film its regularly regarded as one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Lurking beneath its widely hailed aesthetics, however, is a story about ugly, unredeemable characters.
It doesnt take long for the trouble to begin. As we learn within the first few scenes of Heaven, a murder has already occurred. Bill (Richard Gere), working in a steel mill, gets in a fight with his foreman and kills him. He returns to Linda (Linda Manz), his young sister, and tells her they wont always have to live in squalor. The next scene shows Bill, Linda and Abby (Brooke Adams), Bills lover, hopping a train that will take them from the urban machinery of Chicago to the vast, open wheat fields of Texas. They are hired as field hands and soon are out in the middle of nothingness, wandering amid the wheat at sunset, laughing among the chirping crickets.
What happens next is not as important as how it happens. The style of the film, augmented by the dreamy, twilight cinematography of Nestor Almendros (with contributions by Haskell Wexler), and the haunting, understated score by Ennio Morricone, calls attention to the films many paradoxes. Yes, this group finds freedom in the fields, but the emptiness also evokes a sense of isolation, as the farms owner starts expressing affection for Abby and asks her to stay after the harvest. While the land is lush and lively, much like Malicks other works, a central theme of the film is how men and their machines destroy the calm of the wild (in the movies most memorable sequence, a fight between jealous lovers leads to an out-of-control wildfire). And then theres the disparity between the breathtaking visuals sweeping landscapes, gorgeous sunsets and the morose characters, who are beaten down by life and trying to escape their penniless, scarred lives.
Even the films few moments of happiness are undone by lies and broken hearts. Though the farmers proposition to stay offers Abby, Linda and Bill a permanent reprieve from poverty, it means Abby must lie and pretend that Linda and Bill are her siblings. Her decision to marry the farmer is the final curse that sends all three spiraling into despair. Gere, in perhaps his greatest performance, must bite his tongue and watch his lover run to anothers arms. Linda, already a broken little girl far too familiar with death, is once again seemingly abandoned by the adults in her world. Abby becomes the martyr, sacrificing her own happiness to appease both her new husband and her distraught lover.
Why they throw away their happiness Desperation? Greed? Ignorance? is up for debate. Theres no mistaking, though, that this is hell. All of the heavenly beauty on screen is just a mask for a sick inner core.