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Last Night I Watched: ‘Days of Heaven’

Late last year as lockdown rolled on and on, everywhere was shut, I couldn’t see any of my friends and I had no conceivable reason to ever leave my house, I occupied my time by going to the university library every single day. I’d put on a podcast and walk outside, occupying the time as slowly as I could, enjoying the freedom of being outside and feeling the cold air on my skin.

I went to the library to take out DVDs. 15 at a time was the limit, so I piled them up, took them home and spent all night watching films. One of the many films I watched in those dawdling early winter months was Terrence Malick’s second movie: Days of Heaven.

The story is relatively straightforward. Richard Gere plays Bill, a labourer working in the gritty, grimy steel mills of Chicago circa 1916. After accidentally killing his domineering supervisor during an argument, he takes his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda (Linda Manz) with him as he escapes into the great plains of America. The three find work on a large wheat farm run by a handsome landowner (Sam Shepard) who is slowly dying of a terminal illness.

Bill and Abby pretend to be siblings in order to keep the other workers from prying into their personal lives, leading the landowner to fall in love with Abby, who he believes is single. Desperate for money and an escape from the drudgery of manual labour, Bill persuades Abby to accept the landowner’s advances and marry him. The land will soon be theirs, or at least that’s the plan.

The land will soon be theirs, or at least that’s the plan

The first time I saw this movie, I didn’t get it at all. I thought it was formless, shapeless, plotless, meandering and dull. I didn’t like the ending and I found the central love triangle unengaging. Crucially, I was watching the film on my laptop, when I was already quite tired and preoccupied with the thought of the next day’s endless lectures and dense readings. I didn’t give Malick’s film the attention that it deserved and I think I secretly knew it.

Seeing the DVD pop up on eBay for about three pounds, I decided to give Malick’s sophomore effort another try. I had since rewatched his first film Badlands and tried out his later movie The Tree of Life and found myself utterly captivated by both. Why not give Days of Heaven another try?

Thank God I did.

Sometimes a film hits you like a golden hammer. It takes you by surprise, floors you, stuns you and has you whimpering at its feet. By the end of my rewatch of Days of Heaven, I knew that I’d discovered a new personal favourite. What was different about this watch?

By the end of my rewatch of Days of Heaven I knew that I’d discovered a new personal favourite

It helped that I saw it on a TV. Malick’s film is easily in the top five of the most gorgeous movies ever made. Every frame is beautifully and perfectly composed. Often shot at ‘magic hour’, the thirty minute period after sunrise or before sunset, the film glows and gleams a soft, golden orange throughout its short and sweet 90 minute runtime. Shot by cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, the film won an Oscar for the rich quality of its indelible imagery.

Jack Fisk’s production work is immaculate. He designed and built the landowner’s gothic mansion which sits like an earthy, homespun palace above the oceans of wheat. Since I watched this film again, I’ve found its imagery occupying my thoughts in a way that no other movie’s ever has. It’s spellbinding.

Since I watched this film again I’ve found its imagery occupying my thoughts in a way that no other movie’s ever has

Tying this sumptuous collection of images together is the ethereal, dreamlike voice of actor Linda Manz. She provides the movie’s narration in an improvised series of observations and comments which can be both inconsequential and piercing. Manz’s voice is very young and might even sound somewhat cloying at first, but its youthful wisdom, sincerity and vulnerability all grow on you. It’s the magic ingredient that makes this movie Malick’s finest.

Roger Ebert’s review of this film is one of my favourite things he’s ever put into words, up there with his piece on Written on the Wind. He perceptively recognises that this is Linda’s story. She is the heart of Days of Heaven, observing the events of the disastrous love triangle with a child’s understanding. She is the character that the film ends on. I was confused and somewhat disappointed by the ending on first viewing. The final line seemed inconsequential, the final scene separate and disjointed from the rest of the story.

I now realise its perfection.

Linda’s life must continue and so her observations and commentary must carry on too. The days of heaven are behind her, so she sets her sights on the present and the future. To a teenager, a day spent with a good friend is as crucial and consequential as the weight of the past, so it is afforded equal weight.

Days of Heaven is a coming of age story. It’s a story of nostalgia, powerful memories that we return to for comfort and understanding. The machinations and plotting of adults are hazy and difficult to understand, but the dipping of the sun over the horizon, burning fires in the coal-black night and a swarm of locusts are immediate, emotional and impactful visual experiences. We intuitively understand them and internalise them.

Realising Linda’s centrality to the story and its telling is the key to embracing this movie’s power

Linda Manz sadly passed away last year, but will always be remembered for this role, one of the most affecting and compassionate in all of American cinema. Realising Linda’s centrality to the story and its telling is the key to embracing this movie’s power.

As to my other early misguided criticisms, this rewatch wiped every one of them away. Linda’s viewpoint gives the film form and shape. Our engagement is with her understanding of the world, not with the love triangle.

Malick’s film conjures up a dreamlike world and delivers it to the audience entirely through the viewpoint of a child. What a beautiful achievement.

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