Days of Heaven (1978)

For an evocative exercise in imagery, Days of Heaven is both surprisingly and expectedly short in equal measure. It is worth noting that while not heavy on scenic diorama, it is light on dialogue and action also. The former is expressed with the help of deliberate editing, sending the film into post-production limbo of three years. The latter is aided by the intermittent drifting in and out of scenes, creating the effect of an eavesdropper’s intrusion. The viewer here is rendered a witness, a spectator, as the art form itself is stripped down to its elemental basics; images and sounds (this time) coherently tied in to context by the narrator’s voiceover.

When voiceover is incorporated, we are often told the story is told from the perspective of a character, without putting much stock into the literal meaning of the phrase. What we mistakenly learn is only the implication of using such approach, instead of pondering the narrator’s identity and his/her relation to the plot. So instead of repeatedly reminding ourselves “who is speaking and why?”, the reaction is rather “oh, voice over was used? Get used to the drone of monotonous assault on your ears.” While true for any voice over (monotony is tedious) the alternative is inexplicable. How would you expect a recounting of events to be so animated? And in a drama, no less?

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As the voice actor (fine, actress), Linda Manz puts in a stellar performance on and off the screen that provides a fulcrum to the story. It follows a trio of drifters that flee 1910’s Chicago after a workplace incident involving Bill (Gere). The ambiguity of the altercation lends a matter-of-fact nihilism and ambivalence that soon takes the shape of a frantic escape. Accompanying Bill are kid sister and narrator, Linda, as well as girlfriend, Abby, posing as a sister to the actual siblings for reasons of perhaps era taboos. They board a Texas-bound train, that all too happily ignores safety practices and optimal fare revenue, toward a transient life of seasonal work and relative distance from possible incarceration and ties broken prematurely.

Masters of destiny, who once on a farm in the Texan panhandle, realize their newfound peace and tranquility have soon yielded to laborious grind and the occasional unwanted scrutiny of their peculiar bond. While insular and wary of a common vulnerability, they nevertheless display a stark inhibition to unwind and partake in the joys afforded to them by the scenic plains and rolling streams nearby. Until the Farmer — purposefully kept to a generic and disconnected designation of rich benefactor — shows an interest in the trio. A large part of the ensuing events is devoted to a con job resulting in a love triangle the complications of which prove a challenge unforeseeable for its two conspiring corners; Abby and Bill.

Perhaps inherent to the invocation of natural mystique in cinematography and the overall representation and construction of a scene is not merely the speechlessness of inanimate objects captured, but the similar effect lingering shots have on the beholder. An ode to silence carrying as much meaning as if not more than words. In a few scenes, the characters appear to be in conversation before the cut-to, making the viewer feel like they’re butting in. The transition shots are incredible because to end the scene, lines become muffled, as to denote the continuing or regularity of, for example, the bickering or arguing. Lighting, for the majority of the shots, is either minimal or natural, with an almost poetic beauty. Exterior shots predominate the film but the interior scenes are made even more intimate by the inordinate number of scenes outdoors. The farmhouse itself functions also as an extension of its owner; the bourgeois speck on a proletariat landscape. Suspended against a backdrop of an unyielding topography, physically, it is a mirror of the disproportionate distribution of wealth, privilege, and the roles imposed and dictated by economy.

The film as a whole owes its impact to its choice of not eschewing traditional narrative components per se, but the rearrangement of their respective weight. The brick and mortar hallmarks of a movie are all present, but it is rather the chef himself delivering the plate. There is action, conflict, resolution and denouement obviously. But all take a back seat at some point to the quiet observation. Days of Heaven, takes its name perhaps from the silent lull of the offseason that coincides with the middle act of the film, its fork in the road for the three protagonists. Two of the four main protagonists — Linda and the Farmer — will always take turns occupying the third corner of a constantly shifting triangle. But the unorthodoxy is stressed throughout by the reliance of audiovisual over the story proper. Take the scene where Abby and Bill quarrel out of hearing range, within view of Farmer atop the farmhouse. It is a wide shot before we cut to the Farmer. With the wind vane loudly in full spin, jealousy and suspicion never felt so menacing and all-consuming emotions. Moreover, the sensory experiment is even extended to arch over episodically, when three circus performers, who speak not a word of English, enter the fray next to provide an amusing, impromptu distraction from the suffocating idleness of seasonal (un)employment.

Malick’s mise en scène and visual poetry is beautifully delivered, with the majority of exterior scenes in some capacity utilizing the farmhouse transfixed as an anchor. A reminder how get rich schemes are as truly elusive as they are beyond reach is portrayed with the Farmer’s looming estate towering over almost every frame shot outside. The film plays out to the expected climax although here is one out of left field. The closing movement is as musical as all that preceded it, suggesting that some people are too stuck in their ways to glean a lesson from life’s sometimes cruel teaching methods. Although the script is terrific in its wording, a reflection of both era and setting (the socioeconomic status of the drifters explains Linda’s poor grammar for example) it merely exists to serve its function and augment the costumes. And prevalent customs. It adds to the realism, I suppose. What do I know about the speech patterns, I never lived in pre-war America. It remains, though, the imagery and the optical trance the viewer is suspended in that drive everything. A wholly sensory experience. Meaning we are never spoon fed a piece of information, but simply the emotions of the characters to derive clues and hints as to what may potentially unfold.