Days of Heaven is a sensory experience. Nestor Almendros’ rich, sweeping cinematography and Terrence Malick’s decision to shoot most of the film during magic hour, that time where the sun is not in the sky, but there is still light, creates golden, musky hues that imbue each shot with a sense of mysticism, a breathless sense of wonder and awe permeates every shot of Days of Heaven.
Likewise, the music flows over the audience. The opening use of Saint-Saëns’s “The Aquarium” from “Carnival of the Animals” evokes mystery and intrigue and with the play of photographs from the turn of the century, it gives a sense of a simultaneous longing and curiosity. The final image of actress Linda Manz, a modern photo made to look like a relic of the past, is equally elusive.
Linda is the audience’s eyes into the story. The ensuing love triangle between Bill (Richard Gere), Abby (Brook Adams) and The Farmer (Sam Shepard) is not a particularly engaging plot, but Linda’s view of it gives it a bittersweet ambivalence. She’s still a child who does not quite grasp all the intricacies of life, the world is still a playground, still something that can surprise her and evoke a sense of wonder.
Linda’s presence as the audience’s conduit into the film is a reminder that film is not simply a way of seeing, it’s a way of seeing through someone else’s perspective. To miss Linda as the audience’s portal into the world will likely yield frustration at the film’s presentation. The film is constantly permeated with tiny observations and esoteric bits of narration that run against the grain of plot and character development.
This is not to say the story isn’t affecting or won’t resonate, but that it fails to try to hit or build to traditional emotional beats. Things will come to a climax and then simply dissipate for a while and Linda will be left making observations about the dirt, the disparity between the rich and poor or have a conversation with a character that doesn’t seem to lead towards anything. There are a lot of little moments that one might consider dead time, but in Days of Heaven, they’re constant reminders that there is much more going on in the world than one can convey in a film.
Days of Heaven is a film one has to take moment by moment. There is still a macro level at which the film is functioning, but a lot of what makes the film rich and worth watching multiple times is small moments that might easily be missed or pass by on the first few viewings. These moments may not have great significance, but there’s usually something in each and every moment that gives the audience a truly epic sense of the world. This is not the epicenes of scale, but one that reminds the audience that there is always something that one might miss otherwise.
Some scenes become more potent and memorable with the foreknowledge of what is to come. Certain moments that seemed like another one of Linda’s musings becomes a form of foreshadowing or the emergence of a previously unnoticed thematic thread. But in order to avoid a meticulous structure of meaning, there are just as many moments where this isn’t the case, where the film simply breathes.
A scene near the end of the film captures glimpses of a town coming to life right before dawn. It’s completely mundane, but shot with a sense of tranquil awe, an abiding sense of peace if only for the optimism of the moment that brings another day. More than anything else, Days of Heaven is a tranquil experience. Evil and violence are a part of this universe, but there’s the abiding sense that cosmically, all will end well.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing