Film Review: Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a sumptuous picture that offers the director’s trademarks. Days of Heaven is exquisitely filmed, and absorbing throughout.

After losing his job in Chicago, Bill travels with his young sister Linda and his partner Abby (who poses as his sister) in search of work. The group manage to find work on a farm in Texas, which is owned by a wealthy gentleman. When Bill finds out that the farmer is ill, he convinces Abby to marry him so that they can benefit from his fortune…

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Days of Heaven submerges the viewer fully into the period. The film appears utterly authentic in its setting. There is a curious mix of picturesque scenery and a grubbiness of reality. This is particularly true of the beginning of the film, as Bill works on an industrial site. The scene is grim with its dirt, yet it is still beautifully shot, testament to Malick’s attention to detail.

Days of Heaven features a story that has been told before, and since. Notwithstanding, the film stands out amongst its peers thanks to Malick’s superb execution. For example, the narration works well, owing in part to the choice of narrator. The decision to opt for a objective character to narrate gives the film a sense of balance. Although some of the characters have more questionable morals than others, but the filmmaker does not make strong judgements regarding this. Furthermore, there is an innocence to Linda’s narration that is endearing.

Days of Heaven has a timeless quality. This is in part due to the period setting. More critical than this, however, is the fact that nothing really ties the film to the late 1970s period it was produced in. The only thing that indicates the background of the 1978 film is the age of star Richard Gere. And in spite of the early twentieth-century setting, the themes are universal. This is particularly true of the observations on the rich and poor.

The film’s visuals are faultless. Malick engulfs his viewers in natural surroundings. Nature is so key to the film, which is depicted in part through the amazing microscopic shots. The imagery overall is fantastic, with the photography, lighting and art direction combining well. The beauty of the fields is contrasted effectively with later night scenes, which are striking in their use of colour and light.

Performances in Days of Heaven are also great. Sam Shepard stands out as the farmer, giving a suitably restrained performance. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams give solid performances as Bill and Abby, while Linda Manz also shines.

Days of Heaven is being screened at the British Film Institute from 2nd September 2011 as part of the Terrence Malick season, as well as selected venues across the UK. 

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