I was looking forward to reaching Days of Heaven on this list as soon as I noticed Terrence Malick’s name. A young Richard Gere didn’t hurt either. I am most familiar with The Tree of Life, which I watched for the first time late at night with a group of friends in college. We laughed at times, comparing the spacescapes and babbling brooks to Windows 98 screensavers. That film jumped from stunning visuals of deep space to CGI dinosaurs roaming the countryside in a blink of an eye. There are lots of stars (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, etc.) and the story is loosely draped over the scenery, gently and subtly evoking emotion that seems to well up from a subconscious state. Days of Heaven has the same touch of an auteur who trusts the audience enough to succumb to the experience of the film.
I often think about (and write about) whether great films are made when directors achieve ambitious artistic goals, or if the best hallmark of cinematic genius is how entertaining and gripping the narrative is, how much we care about or understand the complexities of the characters. Malick’s particular slice of genius is that he makes films that are undeniably artistic in such an audacious way it appears that is his top priority. I’ve said this of other movies on this list, but it’s especially true of Days of Heaven — this film is so visually captivating I would probably hang any random frame from the reel on my wall. For instance, the wide open prairie with only the needlessly classical Victorian structure standing beautifully isolated, preening for an audience that might never come. In some ways it feels almost facile for Malick, as if he could have trained his camera anywhere on the horizon and captured something magical in the process.
Of course Malick’s DPs, Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, are owed plenty of the credit for the audience hypnotization that happens under the film’s spell. That said, it is Malick’s judiciousness and ability to manipulate both our vision and our hearing to communicate the feeling of a scene, not just the content. While watching the film I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the plot and I honestly didn’t really care, I was so submerged in the viewing experience. Thinking back, and remembering the flow of the story, images are triggered in my mind that make me feel like I was there, feeding off the energy.
The film opens on a Chicago welding plant. The audience can’t hear the dialogue over the machinery but we can feel the blood of the two men in the room running hot. Very quickly, we see the trio of Abby and Bill and our guide, Linda, riding on top of a train away from the scene of the crime where a murder had occurred. Then we are ushered into a prairie pastoral, full of drifters and tedium and the sheer power of the earth on display. There are many deeply human moments that cut me to an emotional bone and I didn’t realize it until later because I was distracted by the scenery.
There is great sadness in the tone of the film. To me it strikes like a melancholic memoir about a troubled childhood, and the adult version of the storyteller is blurring the edges of moments they remember with a different understanding of what those moments were, endowed with a deeper maturity than they had in the moment. Malick mirrors how I think most of us remember our pasts, in flashes of vivid realism, scattered between moments of searing hot emotion and mundane, trivial, details that snuck into our long term memory playlists.
Malick will use this format directly with Sean Penn as the vehicle in Tree of Life. In Days of Heaven, Linda is still a child as she recounts their time at the farm. There is still confusion at the cause and effect that led her to this place, and still awe that this phase of her life could have ever happened at all. We see her environment as I imagine she would — with respect and fear. I think Roger Ebert, as he so often does, captures the power of Linda as the narrator concisely and perfectly:
That is the voice of the person who tells the story, and that is why “Days of Heaven’’ is correct to present its romantic triangle obliquely, as if seen through an emotional filter. Children know that adults can be seized with sudden passions for one another, but children are concerned primarily with how these passions affect themselves: Am I more or less secure, more or less loved, because there has been this emotional realignment among the adults who form my world?
As Ebert suggests, there is an interesting story at play that is special and unique, but unlike almost all other great films on this list, the plot is not the engine. The engine of this film is how insignificant those individual struggles appear in the untamed landscape of the world, where humans are but one more creature scrapping for survival and comfort in an unforgiving atmosphere. The scene with the invasion of the grasshoppers is devastating for the farmer, yes, but that’s not what I cared about in those moments. I don’t care if the humans manage to save their crops because the grasshoppers are a force of nature that should dominate those rolling acres.
When Malick devotes multiple minutes to slow close up time lapses of individual insects in the swarm, completing their one purpose in their short lives, I was reminded of many similar moments in nature documentaries like Planet Earth. But in those instances, the producers graft stories onto the creatures so that they’re anthropomorphized, and we can empathize with their challenges as if they were our own human plights. What Malick does is invert that formula, by making the plot secondary to the world the characters inhabit. They remain relatable as our human insignificance is portrayed in full resonance, and the unspoken existential dread of our surrogates on screen leaps into full effect. Nobody can make his own characters, and the audience in turn, feel as unimportant in the grand scheme of our earth and our universe like Malick does.