Days of Heaven

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Malick the maverick or Malick the mad?

The Film: Terrence Malick’s 1978 mini-epic of lost innocence

The Potable: One bottle of 2014 Noble Vines Collection cabernet sauvignon

The early career of Terrence Malick is, in a word, untouchable. Badlands, Days of Heaven, then to vanish for two decades, only to reemerge with The Thin Red Line? Forget about it. But following 2011’s The Tree of Life, his latest pictures have become increasingly divisive, with the most recent, Song to Song, prompting many critics to ask, “What’s the deal?” Has the auteur lost it? Did he ever have it?

A master of New Hollywood or a big ol’ boob? I decided to get to the bottom of this once and for all.

Days of Heaven stars Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as a pair of cityfolk who land dream jobs as Sam Shepard’s farmhands. Gere’s kid sister comes along, and, for awhile, at least, their days really do feel divine (Oh! I just got it). But this Adam and Eve aren’t long for this Garden of Eden (Oh!), as our protagonists harbor a secret.

days of heaven poster

For what I assume are tax reasons, Gere and Adams pretend to be siblings rather than lovers, a lie that fools almost no one. They’re constantly pawing at each other beneath a rail car, and Gere throws cornbread at the first wheat picker to call them out. Almost no one, because Shepard, “the wealthiest man in the panhandle,” is fooled, too distracted as he is by Adams’ beauty. When Gere overhears that Shepard has one foot in the grave, he hatches a con with his lady-love: marry the dying man, live large, and ultimately inherit his fortune.

Malick’s early work may be considered among the best in American cinema, but Days of Heaven is basically Indecent Proposal if Robert Redford thought his proposal was decent and on the level. I’m not sure if I’m impressed so far.

Gere jealously watches Adams and Shepard drive away for their honeymoon. He’s man of the house for the time being, and spends the next week drinking panhandle hooch butt-naked in a wheat field. That’s what I would do, at least. Days of Heaven, indeed. The newlyweds return and everything goes well for awhile. Gere and Adams sneak off in the early mornings to a nearby creek to drink, dance, and sex. A bit of a dummy, Shepard fails to notice that he’s buying more condoms than he’s using, but he’s a sweet guy. It is only after the most obvious of clues that he gets wise, and, in a lyrical confrontation, he sets his field ablaze, his many acres turned into a fiery hellscape (oh!!).

Days of Heaven is the type of film that reminds us cinema is a visual medium. Shot almost entirely at magic hour – the brief moments at each end of the day when the sun is just below the horizon – every frame is majestically composed. A series of paintings combining the best elements of Hopper and Van Gogh. Wardrobes are key, Gere donning an interesting trenchcoat and fedora look I plan to combine with my Orson Welles cape.

The film includes the kid sister’s narration, sure, but this serves as a poetic compliment that highlights an idealized agrarian lifestyle at odds with turn of the century industrialization. “If you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear ya. He don’t even hear ya talkin’,” she says. “Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just got half devil and half angel in you.” The narration does not, crucially, provide a summary of events; the film’s most important beats are told visually, almost silently.

days of heaven embed

Silently save for the masterful score by Spaghetti Western impresario Ennio Morricone. The film’s soundtrack shows the composer at the height of his career, though I personally think a few tracks could use a touch more tympani and, I don’t know, maybe five additional tubas.

The original question: has Malick lost it, or does Stella even have a groove to get back? Upon its release, Days of Heaven was called “intolerably artsy” and “artificial” by Harold C. Schonberg, thematically hollow by Monica Eng, and “an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it,” by Pauline Kael. Many of these criticisms sound identical to ones lobbied against Malick’s most recent efforts. Today, of course, Days of Heaven is one of cinema’s most revered pictures.

I don’t really see why. In terms of Richard Gere movies, it will always be First Knight for me.

Verdict: three’s a crowd

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