Volume 18 • Issue 48 | April 14 - 20, 2006

Film

“Days of Heaven”
Written and directed by: Terrence Malick
Starts Friday, April 14 at Film Forum
209 W. Houston St.,
between 6th Ave. and Varick
(212.727-8110, www.filmforum.org)

Paramount Pictures

Running from the law, seeking salvation, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams find their way to a Texas wheat field in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”

Malick’s slice of ‘Heaven’ and hell returns

By Steven Snyder

Contradictions run rampant in Terrence Malick’s 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, 1973’s “Badlands,” couldn’t differ more from cinema’s standard depiction of serial killers. The ethereal contemplations of disillusioned soldiers in 1999’s “The Thin Red Line” offsets the typical, gritty realism of war. And in last year’s “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 1978’s “Days of Heaven,” which returns to Film Forum this weekend in a new 35 mm print. An early entry in Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series, as well as an Oscar winner for best cinematography, “Heaven” isn’t just Malick’s most beautiful film — it’s 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 doesn’t 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 won’t always have to live in squalor. The next scene shows Bill, Linda and Abby (Brooke Adams), Bill’s 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 film’s many paradoxes. Yes, this group finds freedom in the fields, but the emptiness also evokes a sense of isolation, as the farm’s owner starts expressing affection for Abby and asks her to stay after the harvest. While the land is lush and lively, much like Malick’s other works, a central theme of the film is how men and their machines destroy the calm of the wild (in the movie’s most memorable sequence, a fight between jealous lovers leads to an out-of-control wildfire). And then there’s 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 film’s few moments of happiness are undone by lies and broken hearts. Though the farmer’s 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 another’s 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. There’s no mistaking, though, that this is hell. All of the heavenly beauty on screen is just a mask for a sick inner core.


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