Terrence Malick’s richly achieved early film from 1978 is now rereleased; it is a tragic romance and slo-mo melodrama which appeared five years after his debut, and after which Malick mysteriously vanished from public view until The Thin Red Line came out fully 21 years later to banish his Salingerian reclusive reputation. Days of Heaven reintroduced to movie audiences his passionate sense of landscape, his unhurried tempo and mastery of calm, although this is in fact an eventful and dramatic film. It also established his compositional technique which foregrounds the shifts and eddies of mood; it is partly a function of shooting a great deal, shaping the movie in the edit and cutting a lot out. In years and decades to come, many of his actors would be disconcerted to discover at their movie premiere that their parts had been radically slimmed or junked entirely. And perhaps most importantly, Days of Heaven established Malick’s most recognisable authorial signature: his reverence for the fading, deepening sunlight of dusk which made him virtually the high priest of the “golden hour”.
It is set in 1916, with some of the US feverishly excited about the fortunes still to be made in the vast swathes of still unexploited farmland and also aware of the looming inevitability of getting involved in the European war. Three drifters from Chicago arrive in the Texas panhandle in the north of the state, hoping to get seasonal farm labouring work. Abby (Brooke Adams), is a beautiful, quiet young woman with a kid sister Linda (Linda Manz), an annoying, entertaining chatterbox who is also watchful and slightly scared by how vulnerable they are; she is the film’s deadpan narrator, coolly accepting their hardship and survival stratagems. With them is Abby’s lover, the brooding and hot-tempered Bill (Richard Gere), who has fled the city after killing a factory foreman and is now posing as Abby’s brother.
The trio fetch up on a giant estate owned by one of the state’s richest men, a melancholy and refined figure played by Sam Shepard; he notices Abby and takes a diffident, gentlemanly shine to her. Cunning Bill has overheard the man’s doctor telling him he has only a year to live and so encourages Abby to seduce him into marriage, which will make them rich after his imminent death. But to his horror, the Faustian bargain doesn’t pay off: the farmer is revitalised, even cured, by married love, and for her part Abby can see how she could flower with this cultured man and not the brutish Bill, who is tormented by jealousy. And perhaps the Old Testament God that rules over Texas will send a biblical plague to punish this transgression.
Malick drew on classic sources to make his own classic: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (with Thomas Hardy at one remove, perhaps) and Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World. I noticed the resemblance to another American master: Henry James. And, of course, Bill and Abby’s final ordeal has something of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch and Sundance.
Malick shows us the abyss of subtle iniquity in the situation that Bill has created for himself. Shepard’s farmer good-naturedly invites Bill and Linda to come live with him and his new wife; he and Abby enjoy their conjugal intimacy, which Abby doesn’t seem to mind too much, but Bill finds that his cynicism and greed have not cushioned him against his agony. And the strange thing about Days of Heaven is that for all their intimacy, Bill and Abby are really like a brother and sister; their imposture, their poverty, their utter dependence on fate and capitalist market forces has infantilised them both. The grownup love relationship, however doomed and founded on deceit it is, is that which Abby has with the innocent farmer. All this is set against a vast backdrop of wheatfields, whose mystery and beauty comes into focus every night as the sun goes down: a premonition of death and the disclosure of meaning which we all hope will arrive just before our lives’ end.
As Malick’s film-making career continued, some of the brevity and realist clarity of Days of Heaven would be less apparent, and his work asked audiences to breathe the thinner and more rarefied air of the visionary. But this movie showed his artistry and purpose from the very early days.