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This review contains spoilers.
Days of Heaven is almost perfect. Almost to the point of being too beautiful, it is gorgeously photographed, much of it in the ‘magic hour’ between dusk and sunset, with stunning shots of the landscape and natural features. (In the Philippines, the film was released with the title Wheat: the Movie.) Ennio Morricone’s music, taking as his inspiration Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium by Camille Saint-Saëns, which opens and closes the film, is both luscious and frightening. The acting is subtle and intelligent: the young Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, both of whom boasted Kojak episodes and not much else on their film acting CVs, and Sam Shephard, who hadn’t even done Kojak, having worked, like Gere, mostly in theatre up to that point. The writing is witty, the story is told with a beguiling simplicity and the period is meticulously realised, not only in farming equipment and costume, but in attitudes and faces.
So why almost perfect? Why not perfect? I would argue (irritatingly, I know) that Terrence Malick consciously defies perfection. The whole point of the film is imperfection, the unsustainability of heaven on earth and the tragic consequences that come from such overreaching ambition.
Bill (Gere) and Abby (Adams), with Abby’s sister Linda (Linda Manz), escape from Chicago after Bill has been involved in a fight. From the very get-go, there is ambiguity and ambivalence. Linda’s voice-over makes no mention of the fight (which may or may not have resulted in murder) and instead frames their escape more as a quest in search of adventure. Her comments will consistently tell us things that seem out of joint with what we are seeing. Her final comments, which close the film, seem to be about Abby but are actually referring to a marginal character whom she has just happened across.
The biggest niggle, the central tragic niggle from which all else flows, is Bill and Abby’s ruse to pose as brother and sister. It is reminiscent of the kind of cockeyed shenanigans in which Martin Sheen’s Kit indulges in Malick’s debut feature Badlands, faking his own signature to avoid other people copying it. The inexplicable deception is part and parcel of Bill’s character. He works in the Chicago steel mill and later the wheat fields dressed in an entirely inappropriate white overcoat (in the shooting script he boasts a cane and hat as well). He is a man at odds with his position in the world, at one point running away to join a circus. The ploy leads to the hoodwinking of the rich farmer, a ghostly Sam Shephard, who marries Abby and invites Bill and Linda to move in with them. However, the farmer is not simply a victim. No one else is fooled by Bill and Abby’s deception. Bill fights a man who asks him if his sister keeps him warm at night and the farmer’s grandfatherly foreman cottons on immediately, even if he lacks proof. In fact, the farmer and Bill are both adept at, and apparently needful of, self-deception: one’s existence grimly limited by poverty and the other’s by loneliness and an imminent death.
The most powerful emotional moment in the film comes with Bill’s realisation that Abby now loves the farmer and is irretrievably lost to him. For once, the hot head does not lose his temper and woefully, but maturely admits, ‘I’ve got no one to blame but myself’. This is an admission that Kit would never have been able to make (but one that Colin Farrell later echoes in The New World) and so it is with a formidable dose of tragic irony that Abby and Bill find themselves in Badlands for the rest of the film. This is tragic irony in the classical sense. The farmer spies conclusive evidence of a love affair between Bill and Abby, whereas what he is a witness to is the conclusion of that affair and, strangely (if only he knew it), his victory.
Abby and Bill’s flight is a gloomy shadow of the sunny adolescent running away of Badlands. The love affair is over by the time they flee and, dressed in her widow weeds, Abby is pulled along uncertainly. Bill and Abby are both doomed and it is left to Linda to escape the stultifying conformity of a girl’s school, complete with ballet class. For her it’s going to be cigarettes and meandering. The perfection sought by a finishing school just doesn’t feel right.