Original release: September 13th, ampoule 1978
Running time: 94 minutes
Writer and director: Terrence Malick
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz
Terrence Malick holds a unique place in my personal canon of film directors, partly because I discovered his films at a watershed moment when a passing interest in cinema was turning into something more consuming. His films fuse a European formalism and philosophical seriousness with a classically American pastoral aesthetic and sense of nostalgia. They hover somewhere around the boundary between the popular and the recondite, giving them the character of a strange cultural hybrid.
Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, is superficially a classic American crime film concerning a young runaway couple, borrowing from Bonnie And Clyde and the long prehistory of road trip narratives that forms a central current in the American cultural imagination, from Twain to Kerouac, The Wizard Of Oz to Easy Rider. Yet this traditional material is refashioned by the modernist narrative device of the unreliable narrator. This casts an uncertain light on its nostalgic aesthetic and throws the focus narcissistically back onto the film’s form as the key to its meaning.
Though Malick has never completely shed his connections with classically American cinematic tropes, his films have become progressively more abstract and formally adventurous. His later films are ponderously paced and heavily aestheticized visual poems, seemingly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. Meditations on time, memory and spirituality, they are also investigations of the relationship between form and content.
Days Of Heaven sits at the intersection of early and late Malick, retaining some of the cohesion of Badlands while pointing the way to the more ruminative style of The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life.
Like Badlands, Days Of Heaven hinges on an unexplained murder, concerns a runaway couple, and is narrated by a naïve observer (in this case a young sibling, Linda) who only passively participates in the events it concerns. The plot is melodramatic. The male protagonist, Bill – played with taciturn reserve by a young Richard Gere – is romantic and rebellious but shackled to a dead-end job in a Chicago factory and bereft of money or prospects. Early in the film he gets into an argument with a foreman in the factory (we can’t hear what it’s about), and in a moment of rage hits him round the head with a fairly hefty-looking spade, apparently killing him.
From here, rather than explaining what has happened and why, Malick simply cuts to a romanticized shot of Bill, his girlfriend Abby, and his little sister, Linda (the narrator) on top of a freight train, chugging through the autumnal countryside. Malick loves these juxtapositions and playfully oblique presentations – fairytale sentimentality interspersed with violence and squalor, toil and mundanity presented with the stylised indulgence of a perfume advert.
The three flee south to the Texas Panhandle, where the rest of the film is set. Pretending that Bill and Abby are brother and sister, they find work as underpaid and exploited migrant labourers harvesting corn for a rich and lonely young farmer. When the farmer in question falls for Abby, she accepts his advances in order to help the three of them trick their way out of poverty, all the while maintaining her clandestine relationship with Bill, her supposed sibling. This love triangle leads to further murder and melodrama, all overlaid by the strange, rambling voiceover of Bill’s little sister, Linda.
Malick certainly gets his money’s worth from the cornfields aesthetically, and the harvesting scenes evoke a slightly incongruous cross between John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath – poor workers being exploited by ‘the man’ – and DH Lawrence’s hammy, over-pumped lyricism. The film was shot almost entirely without artificial light, and mostly during the ‘magic hour’ before sunset, giving it an ethereal gloss that contrasts with the crushingly mundane, repetitive existence the characters are living out. While this can be taken as aesthetic indulgence for its own sake, it becomes more intriguing when considered in combination with the other elements of the narrative. Style subtly jars with content in such a way as to bring the relationship between the two – their convenient grammatical separation, of which we conventionally have so few quibbles – into the spotlight.
Badlands contains lots of beautiful shots of the Midwest wilderness, and this presentation seems slightly dissonant in the context of a film about mass murder. Camera shots – so we generally hold to be the case – are chosen and styled in part to create a narrative atmosphere, and for a murder-themed film we might expect the director to go for something a little darker, more unsettling, more suggestive of a disturbed mental state. The incongruously stylised visual appearance of the film would appear to align itself with the fairytale music and the romanticised and clichéd voiceover of Holly, whose narration subtly clashes with the events themselves. We appear to be watching Holly narratively refashioning the material that forms the historical basis of the story she is telling, subjugating and bending content to fit a form lifted from elsewhere: the popular cadences and ‘sense of an ending’ that tend to feature in tales that we tell.
In Days Of Heaven this aspect is brought even more to the fore by both the more overtly aestheticized appearance of the film, and the way in which the story is visually narrated. Malick wanted to make a visual poem in which images have greater narrative significance than dialogue, and part of the way he achieves this effect is by editing the film in such a way that it doesn’t tell the story in a syntactical narrative order. Like a William Faulkner novel, it jumps about in fragments, usually declining to present us with an easy and established narrative or temporal link between one scene and the next. This means we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and are never sure that some significant event has not been concealed from us.
Whereas Holly’s voiceover in Badlands is clichéd and seems to imitate storybook phrases and narrative patterns, Linda’s voiceover is semi-nonsensical. As well as being a lot younger than Holly – probably about nine or ten – she seems to have some sort of mental impairment. The fantastical aesthetic provided by the mood-lit cornfields seems to tie in with this narrative perspective. It gives the scenes a magical and incomprehensible quality that seems to be partially recreating the impression they would create from the perspective of a nine year old. The incongruously lavish visual style encourages us to detach the images we’re watching from their contextual significance – the misery of poverty, the backbreaking mundanity of the work, the wider social injustice and cruelty underpinning it all – and view it as a purely aesthetic spectacle, prior to rational interpretation.
This seems to align us with Linda’s perspective, who as a child with an incomplete understanding of the world around her and the forces that affect her, focuses on appearance more than meaning or explanation. Her narrative is full of observations about what things look, sound, or feel like, but she never really offers an opinion on how or why anything has happened. Thus through its visual style the film places us in the wide-eyed and oblivious position of a child looking on, witnessing events without understanding their full significance and the adult motivations, causes and consequences that underpin them.
Yet despite this apparent convergence of the film’s aesthetic and Linda’s perspective, the relationship remains incomplete; we’re shown events that
Linda could not possibly have witnessed. The result, rather than a more straightforward unreliable narrative, is a film where the relationship between form and content becomes a kind of riddle, emphasising the gap between experience and representation. The definitive version of the story remains withheld, as events are jumbled and reordered, imagined and perhaps even invented in the haze of nostalgic recollection.
The conclusion to the film further undermines the relationship between its constituent parts. As it ends, Linda seems to be setting off on a new adventure. The story’s end is, from her perspective, its beginning. Indeed, Linda’s voiceover doesn’t even end; she is still rambling on when the credits come in and cut her off. This narrative curveball undermines the unity of the story. The ending detracts from any attempts we might make to read a coherent meaning into the story by preventing us from isolating it as a self-contained narrative whole. The infinity of the world it contains spills out over the boundaries constructed by its form.
It reminded me of the ending of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, when the two main characters, Frederic and Deslauriers, conclude that the most important and meaningful episode in their lives was in fact something that happened years before the narrative begins, and was in fact never in any way alluded to before. Just as Flaubert’s ending undercuts our attempts to read Frederic and Deslauriers as coherent and explicable characters, so the ending of Days Of Heaven prevents us from deferring to the narrative boundaries, highly artificial structure and symmetry that it has established for us, by undermining it’s own finality. The film refuses any final answer to the questions it raises, and thus remains, like the world itself, a beautiful and uncontainable mystery.
Danny Byrne is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Having enjoyed watching films from an early age, he developed a more serious interest while studying literature at Oxford University and UCL. His cinematic interests range from Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky to contemporary directors such as Bela Tarr, the Dardenne Brothers and Abbas Kiarostami.
He writes on literature and film at his blog dannysbyrne.wordpress.com and is a regular contributor to literary websites including 3:AM Magazine and ReadySteadyBook.com. You can follow him on Twitter @dannysbyrne.