Days of Heaven Review

It's very hard to know what to expect from a director who has directed only three films in the last twenty-nine years. The enigmatic Terence Malick, whose last film The Thin Red Line divided critics neatly into the 'love it' or 'hate it' camps, garnered his cult status off the back of two seventies classics that are as pulsating with visual verve today as they were when first released. The first was Badlands, made in 1973, and the second was the 1978 film Days Of Heaven.


Set in the preceding years of the first World War, Days Of Heaven commences outside Chicago, in which one of the film's main characters - Bill (Richard Gere) is caught up in a fight with a Steel Mill Foreman and inadvertently kills him. Together with his girlfriend Abby (a very thin Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda (an excellent performance by young Linda Manz), the trio flee to Texas, which is in the middle of a big harvest. Luckily, Bill, Abby and Linda all soon find jobs as workers on the vast wheat fields of a wealthy man simply known as 'The Farmer' (playwright Sam Shepard). In order to deflect attention, Bill has told anyone who asks that Abby is his sister. Always showing their love for each other in private, the couple are presented with an opportunity for social ascension, when The Farmer grows an attraction to Abby. The farmer asks Abby to stay after the harvest, and she agrees providing her 'brother and sister' can stay too. Bill however, has unbeknownst to The Farmer overheard a conversation, in which it was rumoured The Farmer has only a short while to live. This convinces Bill to agree to let Abby marry The Farmer, since he will die soon anyway and thus leave his riches to her (and therefore Bill). Things don't go according to plan though, as The Farmer doesn't seem to be dying, and Abby is actually starting to fall in love with him.


No review of Days Of Heaven is accurate if it does not mention the film's absolutely breathtaking utilisation of sight and sound. Here is a film in which every single shot viewed and every single sound heard will linger in the mind days after experiencing them. Filmed during the "magic hour" just before the sun sets for the day, every single frame of the film has been given a natural and luminous glow that effortlessly conjures up a sense of escapist authenticity. One method of providing escapist cinema is to throw in fantastical worlds for the viewer to indulge in. A tougher and more masterful way of achieving this task is to create a past world so removed from contemporary society and yet so believable that the world that is created almost has a life of its own outside of the screen. Days Of Heaven perfectly corroborates this latter example, and credit justly goes to writer/director Terence Malick. Also worthy of high praise is the tremendous achievements of director of photography Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for his efforts, and who was also helped out by Haskell Wexler due to contract obligations requiring him on another film. Wexler was never given co-credit for his work, despite filming approximately half of the shots himself.

Sound is given such an emphasis in Days Of Heaven that you would argue it is ultimately more important to Malick than the characters themselves. The sound mix isn't background wallpaper thrown in to add atmosphere to the story, but is actually placed heavily in the foreground as if given highest priority. In fact, there are some sequences in which the characters' dialogue has been muted to make way for the surrounding sound environment. Days Of Heaven unlike any other film strikes a vast audible chord using such subtle sounds as hay swaying in the breeze or winds blowing. Indeed, the famous locust attack sequence in the film is horrific not because of the visual aspects but because of how it grates in its sound.

The most obvious reason for the film not being forever banded in many 'top ten' lists is due to the ever-present criticism of the film's emotional aloofness. This apparent distancing from the heart of the characters has been blamed for the film's slow pacing and style-over-content aurora, in which minimalist dialogue and lack of characterisation fail to enhance the plot. There are however, various elements that defend the film. Firstly, one must not forget that Days Of Heaven is narrated in an honest fashion by Linda, a child who sees things straight and narrow like any child does. She lacks the passion generated by the adult love triangle surrounding her, and her narration is almost a child's view commentary of the new experiences she witnesses. This arguably is why the audience has trouble in identifying with Bill, Abby or The Farmer. In answer to the film's slow pacing and bare dialogue, one is reminded that these are simple, ordinary characters behaving in the most primary of ways, which forms part of Malick's painting of a realistic past world. The plot is uneventful (despite the inclusion of a few murders) but then so is life itself for most people, and why should a film be only produced if the story premise is out-of-the-ordinary to the viewer? The promise of a different cinematic world is enough of a viewing temptation without the need for unrealistic melodrama.

Cast wise, Gere, Adams and Shepard all perform acceptably, but they are only bit-players in the ultimate purpose of Days Of Heaven. Linda Manz is excellent, and deserved more recognition and a greater, subsequent career for her fundamental portrayal of the character Linda, who serves almost as a link between the world of the film and the modern-day audience. Ennio Morricone like always delivers a subtle yet evocative score that showcases his abundant talents.


The film apparently had shooting troubles, and Malick took two years to edit it. This was proceeded by the director's self-imposed hiatus from filmmaking, until The Thin Red Line in 1998. For those viewers perplexed by this latter example, a visually poetic yet almost incomprehensible war film, Days Of Heaven is an excellent insight into the mind of Malick and his cinematic priorities. It is also one of the greatest audio/visual movies if not possibly one of the finest movies of the nineteen seventies. It certainly won't appeal to everyone, in fact only a minority will persevere with and champion it, but seeing the film once will ensure that its sensual evocativeness will always stay with you, even if you never, ever visit the world of Days Of Heaven again.



Academy Awards 1978
Best Cinematography - Nestor Almendros

Academy Award Nominations 1978
Best Costume Design - Patricia Norris
Best Original Score - Ennio Morricone
Best Sound Recording - Robert W. Glass Jr., John T. Reitz, Barry Thomas, John Wilkinson



Picture
For such a powerfully visual film, the transfer is arguably more fundamental than extras. Paramount have delivered an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that on the whole complements the film's beauty, despite a few traces of dirt and grain, and a couple of annoying print shakes during scene transitions. Even so, the transfer has slightly more depth than the R1 version, and easily beats the very grainy TV prints of the film that have been circulating.

Sound
The film has been splendidly remixed into 5.1 surround that audibly takes Malick's film into another level of cinematic enjoyment. The audio elements are given much more room to become distinctive in their own right, and the use of channelling perfectly complements the notion of the authetic world Days Of Heaven presents to us. The only gripe is the film lacks the original Dolby stereo track that is available on the R1 version.




Menu: A static and silent menu incorporating some shots from the film as well as promotional artwork. As understatement is a big factor of the film, you could sarcastically argue that the menu is in keeping with the film.

Packaging: The usual Paramount Widescreen Collection amaray packaging, featuring a grim colouring on the front cover and a single page insert for chapter listings.



Extras

Original Theatrical Trailer: A slow and uninteresting trailer that manages to present the film as if represented by its critics as opposed to its fans.




Conclusion
The enigmatic persona of the film and its director doesn't help when it comes to extra features, but Days Of Heaven is so rewarding in its own right that any fan wishing to own the film will find enough quality aspects on the DVD to satisfy. The Region 2 version lacks the additional inclusion of the original Dolby Stereo track which is available on the Region 1, but this is only a minor gripe. As the medium of DVD enhances the audio and visual qualities of cinema, what better way to experience such a breathtaking example of a masterwork than with Terence Malick's Days Of Heaven.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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