terrence malick made television commercials. He also made two movies, “Badlands,” starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, in 1973, and “Days of Heaven.” Then he disappeared.
In both movies, Malick explored the themes of fate, fugitives and the vulnerability of Americans who live close to the social margins. “Badlands,” loosely based on the Charles Starkweather murder spree of the 1950s, was rough in parts and in many respects appeared to be a warm-up for “Days of Heaven.” Still, there were glimpses of a singular vision here: Martin Sheen’s Kit epitomized the easy, sudden and seemingly inexplicable violence that seems so characteristically American — Jim Thompson on the big screen. We also saw Malick’s lyricism in his shots of the Dakota Badlands — vast spaces promising freedom that become tiny traps from which there was no way out.
That lyricism explodes in “Days of Heaven,” from the opening bars of Ennio Morricone’s
score overlaying a black-and-white montage of World War I American faces, to the roaring blast furnaces of Chicago and on to the limitless, undulating wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle. The story is simple enough: Bill (Richard Gere), a temperamental sort, his lover, Abby (Brooke Adams), and his kid sister, Linda (Linda Manz), flee Chicago — where Gere has accidentally killed the mill foreman — and find salvation of a sort harvesting wheat on a Texas farm. The farm owner, played by Sam Shepard — a lonely, awkward soul who is dying of an incurable disease — is attracted to Abby, who Bill has passed off as his sister. Grabbing at a chance to escape their drifters’ life, Abby marries the farmer, anticipating the money she and Bill will enjoy once he dies. The ensuing months are, indeed days of heaven, for all of them.
The deception, inexorably, ends in fire and ashes, a screwdriver through one man’s chest, a blood-soaked body face-down in a Texas stream. There is a familiar, Dreiserian moral to all of this, yet it is not so much the story itself as the way it is told — primarily through images — that makes “Days of Heaven” so memorable. In that sense, it perhaps qualifies as “pure cinema,” which of course is not the only way to judge great movies. “Days of Heaven” has neither the writing of, say, “All About Eve” — although Manz’s laconic, wise voice-over narration will stay with you for a long time — nor the bite of “Sunset Boulevard,” nor even the narrative power of “The Godfather II.” But, to coin a (literal) clichi, it is the closest to poetry in motion that I have ever seen. The pictures — migrants leaping off a westbound train, a quick close-up of a face riven with conflicting emotions, locusts on a stalk of wheat — truly tell the story.
Nestor Almendros (with help from Haskell Wexler) won an Academy Award for the cinematography (there’s no point in seeing the film on anything but the big screen), and many critics dismissed “Days of Heaven” as just a pretty picture. True, character development is not at the forefront here; Shepard, in particular, does not appear to have had a good time. Adams, however, is marvelously shaded and one wonders why she has not had a bigger career. Manz, even after a dozen viewings over nearly 20 years, puts every other child actor, from Anna Paquin to Macaulay Culkin, to shame. Whatever happened to her?
And whatever happened to Terrence Malick?