Monday, 14 July 2008

Days of Heaven (1978, US, Terence Malick)

Terence Malick is one of the very few great contemporary American film makers. I know it's easy to suggest a director has never made a creative mis-step when his entire career only exists of four films, but it's still the case that all of Malick's films to date could be described as masterpieces by any yardstick. 'Days of Heaven' is in my opinion though, the finest of all. It's odd that for all the talk of a new Hollywood generation in the 70s, Malick often goes unnoticed and seldom mentioned in the same breath as his much more highly regarded contemporaries such as Scorsese and Coppola - time to set the record straight, I think. 'Days of Heaven' is easily the match of their greatest works ('Raging Bull' or 'Apocalypse Now' say).

Set in 1916, Malick traces the tale of three itinerant workers (Bill - Richard Gere, Abby - Brooke Adams, Linda - Linda Manz) who escape to Texas after Bill murders a co-worker. They end up working for a farmer (Sam Shephard), who Bill learns is dying. Knowing that the farmer is in love with Abby, they hatch a foolproof scheme - if Abby marries the farmer, then when he dies, the three of them will be set up for life. Of course in cinema, the best laid plans never succeed, and so it goes. The plan is jeopardised on two fronts; the farmer shows no sign of becoming more ill and that Abby begins to fall in love with the farmer. Bill and Abby had been passing themselves off as siblings, when of course they're more intimate than that, and whether the farmer suspects or not (his foreman does though the farmer fires him when he raises his concerns), what results is a tumultuous jealousy from both men as they are unable to wholly love the woman they are in love with, which naturally results in tragedy.

Most critics praise 'Days of Heaven' for its visual rush, and it's certainly true that the Oscar-winning cinematography of a near-blind Nestor Almendros (known for his work for Francois Truffaut) and Haskell Wexler paints an evocative image of the rural South. It's one of the best looking films you'll ever see, up there with 'The Red Shoes' or 'Barry Lyndon'. The film is much more than a superb demonstration of visual style though, as the moral implications of Bill, Abby and Linda's plan unfold in a jealousy-soaked climax of literally Biblical proportions. Two prominent references to the Bible are used in the film - Bill and Abby passing themselves off as siblings reflect the same circumstances of Abraham and Sarah, and also the Plague of Locusts from Exodus is used as the farmer's wheat fields are ravaged; the trauma of which directly drives the tragic stand-off between Bill and the farmer. Malick disappeared from film for two decades after the post-production of 'Days of Heaven', which reportedly itself took two years to complete. We should be fortunate he returned to film making. 5/5

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