Terrence Malick has a way of making the most ordinary things seem positively monumental, even Biblical. That tendency has hit an apex, perhaps, with The Tree of Life (and To the Wonder, probably, which I haven’t seen, but the priest character isn’t in there by accident), but even as far back as Badlands and Days of Heaven, it’s there. It’s there in the cinematography, the pacing, the voiceovers…everything that makes a Malick film a Malick film.
Days of Heaven follows a trio of migrant workers in 1916 America – a man, his young sister, and his lover,who pretends to be his sister as well, because he thinks it’ll require less explanation. If you’re Biblically minded, this pretense may already suggest a portion of the story of Abraham, when his entourage is traveling around and he pretends Sarah is his sister instead of his wife, for even less explicable reasons. In the Bible story, the king of the land takes a shine to Sarah and intends to marry her, but Abraham ponies up that she’s his wife, and the king is like “whoa, sorry dude” and everything’s cool. In Days of Heaven, the plantation owner takes a shine to the woman, Abby, and the man, Bill, comes up with a plan for her to marry the owner, who he overhears is terminally ill, so she (and by extension, Bill) can inherit the plantation.
It’s, well…not a good idea. The film is narrated by the younger sister, Linda, in a dreamy yet direct and innocent tone inherited straight from Sissy Spacek in Badlands. She’s old enough to know what’s going on, but young enough that she doesn’t fully understand it – which makes the whole thing rather elusive to us as well. Bill isn’t totally money-hungry; he gave up a good industrial job in the city by losing his temper with other worker. He’s ruled by emotion more often than rationality, which makes such a calculating move seem odd, but when he sees a way out of continuing to wander from one job to the next barely hanging on, a more settled and stable life looks mighty desirable.
The film turns nightmarish when a plague of locusts takes over – is it a punishment for Bill and Abby’s transgression? Is it merely bad luck? It’s not explicit, but it is epically treated. This film is much shorter than Malick’s later works would be, but just about everything in it feels weighty. A plague of locusts is bad anytime, a positively devastating force of nature to a farmer. But here it’s more than that. It seems to challenge the very foundation of life, exposing secrets, exploding relationships, unveiling characters for who they are (both superficially and deep down). The very fabric of the slice of life we see is unwoven.
The cinematography is one of the real stars, as we’ve come to expect from Malick. A lot of the film is shot at “magic hour”, that moment of twilight when the setting sun throws reds and yellows everywhere. Other times, people are silhouetted against burning red fire, or consumed in a flurry of locusts. At all times, the lone mansion mansion that has become such a symbol for the film (we’re very rarely inside it) stands out starkly against the fields and sky. There are scenes before we get to the farm – a montage of period photographs under the credits, the prologue scene with Bill in the city, the train ride out west with dozens of labourers hoping to find work for the harvest – and I loved the way they, along with that voiceover, set the period and the mood for the film even before we got to the meat of the story.
I’m still thinking through the film (writing this post is in fact part of that process), and I expect to return to it both on its own and as part of Malick’s body of work many times to come. It has much in common with Badlands, as I’ve indicated (and there’s more than I didn’t talk about, especially in the denouement), but it also clearly presages Malick’s later, even more poetic works.