Elbert Ventura on Days of Heaven
As much as I love watching Days of Heaven, I dread having to write about it. The experience of seeing Terrence Malick’s masterpiece invariably leaves me awestruck and overwhelmed, and gushing is not criticism. So much has been written about Malick and his movies, much of it effusive and insightful, that anything else one has to say seems little more than an affirmative echo. It’s always a shock to discover that Days of Heaven runs a mere 94 minutes; its scale is so impossibly vast, its perspective so breathtakingly cosmic, that wrapping your arms around it seems a fool's errand. But if Malick's movie tells us anything, it's to be humble in the face of the monumental. There will be no attempt at converting the skeptical here, nor any pretense of comprehensiveness. All I offer here are fleeting recollections, an image here, a sentence there, a performance—a handful of things that this appreciative viewer treasures most about Days of Heaven.
A train on a bridge. The very first image from Days of Heaven that left an imprint on me was of a train chugging over a bridge against a resplendent sky. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, the shot deposits the viewer into the distance, before returning us to the intimacy of the crowded train, heading west carrying migrant workers. Bill (Richard Gere), his girl Abby (Brooke Adams), and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) are on the run from Chicago, where Bill, in a heated moment, murdered the foreman at the steel mill where he worked. The monotony of the trip is etched on the faces of the travelers, but nostalgia, even romance, is the dominant mood. Linda’s voiceover gives the scene a fine burnish—“…goin’ on adventures,” she says—and the jaunty music and lovely landscape are with her. How beauty and misery can coexist is a mystery on which the movie rests.
The house. The three arrive at a farm in Texas, where they work as farmhands for the wheat harvest. Looming over the fields is the farmer’s house, a stark Victorian edifice that pays homage to Edward Hopper’s “House on the Railroad.” (Even the shadows look painted on.) Like its inspiration, the house is an indelible evocation of a distinctly American loneliness—solitude amid plenty and possibility. Standing mute and tall, the house acquires grandeur and poignancy. Its monumentality becomes a rebuke to human frailty, and its inescapable presence a reminder of our smallness. And to think art director Jack Fisk built it out of plywood.
Silence. Large patches of the movie are wordless, and scenes of exposition sometimes involve just a muttered line and a reaction shot. As cast and crew attest, the script for Days of Heaven barely resembles the finished product. Malick and editor Billy Weber excised whole scenes, choosing to tell the story via images and Linda Manz’s voice over. In a 2007 interview, Richard Gere recounted his disappointment upon seeing so much of the actors’ work left out. Indeed, much of the criticism of the movie upon its release fixated on its emotional detachment. But such views only underscore the radicalism of Malick’s art, one in which emotion and information are communicated not through the tired creakings of conventional narrative but through image and sound, mise-en-scène and montage—a reclamation of the form and function of cinema.
Sound. Because the lines barely rise above a whisper, one may have to turn up the volume higher than usual when watching at home. You realize that as beautiful and serene as the movie is, it also features ear-splitting noises that surge unexpectedly. Set in 1916, the movie deploys sound as a harbinger of the death of pastoral America. Scattered throughout the film are industrial beasts that, for brief moments, overwhelm the sonic canvas: a wheat thresher, an airplane, a runaway tractor.
Sam Shepard. Between his turn here and his Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, Shepard has come to embody frontier masculinity in American cinema. Amid the plenitude of nature, Shepard’s farmer stands taciturn and alone. His gravity here is essential—it makes palpable the extinction that he represents. In Criterion Collection essay, critic Adrian Martin notes that Shepard “thought himself to be playing someone who was less a flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional psychological character than a kind of sketch, silhouette, or ghost.” We learn that he has been given a year to live by his doctor, a discovery that kicks the wisp of a plot into gear. Bill, passing himself off as Abby’s brother, urges her to marry the infatuated farmer. Despite the sensational scheme, the movie hardly explodes into histrionics. The refusal to foreground human drama is central to Malick’s project. Much has been made of Malick’s Transcendentalist worldview, but that has frequently been interpreted as empty nature-worship and postcard-pretty imagery. But he’s after something deeper. In the juxtaposition between his characters and the indifferent world, Malick reminds us of our finitude. The shots of nature without a human in the frame are an implicit reminder that the world turns, and will continue to turn, without us.
The “old, weird America.” In his review of The Assassination of Jesse James, J. Hoberman invoked Greil Marcus’s phrase “old, weird America” to describe that movie’s knickknacks-in-the-attic strangeness. An overstatement, that: the eccentric Americana in Andrew Dominik’s western is meticulously rendered, but it’s the work of a dabbler who roots around in the attic to find cool things for his movie. Malick, on the other hand, shows a real affinity for the eccentricity he captures. The snippets of a hidden America he shows us emerge organically—a man doing a tap dance on a plank of wood, a mutton-chopped fiddler playing a raging hoedown in the firelight. On the run from the authorities after a climactic showdown ends with the farmer's death, Bill, Abby, and Linda take the most haunting river ride in the movies since the children took flight from Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. “Some sights I saw was really spooky they gave me goose pimples,” says Linda, as they pass a ghostly congregation of vagabonds gathered around a bonfire. This is the vanished America that we will all soon forget; only the mute earth will remember.
Bill’s death. Tracked down by the police to their wooded hideout, Bill makes a run for it. He comes to a river, tries to hide in the bushes, then bolts for the other bank. A cop on horseback sees him and guns him down. He falls dead, and we watch staring up from the riverbed as his face hits the water—a shot that Malick got by filming Gere dunking his head into Fisk and wife Sissy Spacek’s aquarium. As Abby cries over Bill’s lifeless body, Malick cuts to the opposite bank. A curious few, women with parasols, boys with fishing poles, watch the scene impassively. Below them, the river keeps running, aloof to the end of Abby’s world—a summation of Malick’s thesis as succinct as it is poetic.
"We'll all be gone in a couple of years. Who's gonna care that we acted perfect?" Despite the implicit critique of our narcissism and hubris, Malick’s movies are not misanthropic. His films stare with sad yet comprehending eyes at the mess we make of things. Compare Days of Heaven with another masterpiece from the same period, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Both films embed their human beings in implacable environments and step back to a detached vantage, observing our earthly thrashings wordlessly. Both feature flawed men making their way in the world unscrupulously, even immorally. Both provide voice-over narration—two of the greatest such performances in movies—for context and counterpoint. But Kubrick’s film is cool to the touch, Malick’s cozy as a quilt. The difference lies in their respective worldviews. Kubrick’s Olympian detachment bespoke his pessimism about humanity, and his movie’s closing lines about death carried a sting of finality, even of a judgment. Malick’s omniscience offers something else. Subsuming human experience into the cosmic, Malick also reminds us of our transience, but there is nothing of a rebuke here. In showing us that life does not begin or end with us, Malick introduces the presence of something larger, more enduring, and more meaningful than our existence—he broaches the possibility of immanence.
Linda Manz. As Stephen Colbert would say: great child performance or greatest child performance? Affectless, unrehearsed, almost savant-like, Manz supplies the heft of lived experience to a movie concerned with the ethereal. It's no surprise that Manz owns the movie—the credits tell us as much. A collage of turn-of-the-century photographs, accompanied by Saint Saens’s jewel-box-like “Aquarium” movement from “Carnival of the Animals,” ends with a sepia-toned snapshot of Manz's hardscrabble girl. Framed as recollection and fractured into impressionistic images, the movie relies on her voiceover to hold it all together. The first-time actor was picked for the part after a meeting with Malick, in which she told the director in her tough, streetwise accent, "I read your script. I liked it." In the commentary track on the Criterion DVD, we learn that the narration came about through unusual means. One scene, in which Linda tells us the story of the apocalypse, was Manz's rendering of the story as told to her the night before—which Malick then recorded and put in the movie. For many of the scenes, Manz was asked to view the footage and comment on the action as she interpreted it, words that then became the film's voiceover. Manz also articulates Malick's worldview. At one point, she says she might want to grow up to be a “mud doctor,” an oblique reference to Malick's fascination with the ageless planet. At another juncture, she talks about how we are all “half-angel” and “half-devil,” anticipating the more explicit ruminations of man’s nature in The Thin Red Line. In some ways the embodiment of the old, weird America Malick renders, Linda is the medium through which the filmmaker manifests his singular humanism. Days of Heaven can be read as a chapter in a biography, a short window into a remarkable period of a girl's life. But it's more than that. Malick insists that we view existence—our stories and histories—as a fragment of something larger. He respects Linda’s subjectivity, but also takes us beyond it, contrasting her perspective with his distanced gaze. That contrast gives us a remarkable double vision: we are made aware of the specificity of human experience, but also of its universality and timelessness. In a movie whose central action highlights human frailty and the limits of our designs, Malick’s equanimity is a comfort. He reminds us of our connectedness not just to nature, or the elements, but to the past and future as well. The movie ends with Linda walking away from us along railroad tracks, her future—somehow—wide open. It’s a lovely, unexpected image, and it’s the last of the movie’s countless gifts.
Days of Heaven is playing June 30 and July 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.