To celebrate the debut of Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning film, The Tree of Life, Cinémezzo, with the help of some guest contributors, is taking a look back at his four features Badlands; Days of Heaven; The Thin Red Line; and The New World, all of which contain in their sounds and images the ebb and flow of life and time.
Terrence Malick’s second feature, 1978′s Days of Heaven, is often credited with being one of the most visually and aurally beautiful films ever made. Among admirers, the discussion usually begins with the film’s painterly landscape photography, as shot by the credited (and Oscar-winning) Nestor Almendros and the uncredited Haskel Wexler. From there, it is invariably mentioned how these cinematographers took advantage of Alberta’s (filling in for Texas, circa 1916) extended “magic hour” and used little artificial lighting. And, of course, there’s Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, the perfect compliment to both said compositions and the vivid sounds of the natural, pastoral world that make up the remainder of the soundtrack (along with a memorable use of Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium” from The Carnival of the Animals). Words like “ethereal,” “lush,” “atmospheric,” and “moody” are usually invoked in some combination.
None of the above is remotely wrong; Days of Heaven looks gorgeous, sounds lovely, and is indeed ethereal, lush, atmospheric, and moody. But to stop there is to underestimate Malick’s masterpiece. The film is richly allusive, and rife with complex human drama. To be sure, that drama is muted by Hollywood standards; it might even have the least amount of narrative thrust of any of Malick’s first four features. Do not, however, mistake purposeful understatement for the absence of substance or a relative lack of narrative urgency for a plot-less aesthetic exercise.
The story of Days of Heaven is one both archetypal within American cultural mythology and, at the same time, more essentially elemental, Biblical even. Its starting point–an outlaw couple on the run–is not all that different from the film that, a decade before Days, supposedly changed the rules of Hollywood movie-making: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that echoes even more distinctly through Malick’s first feature, Badlands.
The most radical and fascinating move that Malick makes as a storyteller is to decentralize the narrative away from what might have been a relocated retread of Penn’s film and his own debut. Rather than focusing on said outlaw couple–Richard Gere’s Bill and Brooke Adams’ Abby, who hop a West-headed train and pretend to be siblings after Bill kills a supervisor at the Chicago steel mill where we was working–or on the wealthy, terminally ill farmer (a superb Sam Shepard) who creates the third point in the story’s love triangle, Malick squares his attention on Bill’s kid sister, Linda (Linda Manz, in one of the all-time great youth performances). This decision accounts for the film’s perceived lack of dramatic emphasis. Linda is only half-interested in the romantic dynamic taking shape between the adults around her, and probably only half-aware of why they quickly fled Chicago for Texas. She notes in voice-over what she can gather of these heated goings-on alongside curious observations of the natural world of the farm and stray philosophical ruminations that, if sometimes incidentally wise-beyond-her-years, remain distinctly those of a young girl.
Andrew Wyeth’s famous 1948 painting Christina’s World was reportedly an important influence on the film. Certainly, looking at the painting and select compositions from Days of Heavens side-by-side is almost uncanny. But the “world” suggested in Wyeth’s image of a young girl staring out across the vastness of a seemingly endless sea of wheat (with a Gothic country mansion, a dead-ringer for the home of Shepard’s farmer, in the distance) seems to have informed Malick’s film in ways that extend beyond its photographic palette.
Unlike Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, Days of Heaven does not end with the death or capture of its criminal protagonist. In fact, the scene when Bill is spotted, chased, and gunned down by the authorities is remarkably brief, and registers as almost irrelevant and strangely out of place, in sync only with the film’s larger sense of Old Testament narrative logic. Situated between the much-praised “plague of locusts” sequence and Bill’s death scene is a trip along the river that feels as oddly enchanted and dreamlike as that of the orphaned runaway children, John and Pearl, in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. The cadence of this extraordinary stretch is not one of frenzied escape, but instead of leisure and wonder, as experienced through Linda’s eyes.
The point, at any rate, is that the film continues after Bill has been killed, and after Abby, too, has departed the picture, dropping her late lover’s sister off at a girl’s boarding school. In the indelible epilogue, we see Linda, our mercurial guide through paradises found and lost, leaving the school in the early morning hours, accompanied by a slightly older female companion. “This girl, she didn’t know where she was goin’ or what she was gonna do. She didn’t have no money on her,” Linda tells us over the soundtrack. “Maybe she’d meet up with a character. I was hopin’ things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.” Here, in the film’s final moments, Malick has, again, slyly decentralized his focus. Linda ponders where her friend will end up; there is no mention or suggestion of what will become of our narrator herself. The effect of this move is that is that the story–more than most in cinema or on the page–seems to truly linger on, beyond the closing credits and outward, into decades of American life to follow.
This interpretation seems almost too appropriate since, for nearly twenty years after Days of Heaven‘s release, that last shot of Linda watching her friend walk down the railroad tracks seemed like it might be the last on-screen word from Malick. Instead, in his return, we can spot the spiritual reappearance of Linda as the lone female, Private Bell’s idealized sweetheart-back-home, in The Thin Red Line and especially in Q’Orianka Kilcher’s precocious Pocahontas in The New World . Of course, neither continuation works from a chronological perspective, yet they make a peculiar sort of sense within a broader, poetically-aware spectrum of analysis–just the sort of lens that is necessary to appreciate Malick’s work beyond its sensual virtues.
Josh Timmermann is a film and music critic, originally from Southern Illinois, presently based in Vancouver, British Columbia. His writing has appeared in such publications as Stylus Magazine, where he served as editor for the film section; PopMatters; CineScene; Kitty Magik; and The Village Voice, among others. His fleeting observations on movies, music, television, sports, and whatever else happens to strike his momentary interest can be found regularly at JLT/JLT.