As I mentioned some time ago, Terrence Malick's 1978 film Days of Heaven is pretty close to my favorite film of all-time. For me, it's one of those films that never gets old, each subsequent viewing yielding new discoveries.
The film begins a one-week engagement at the Laurelhurst Theater today. It's really something that needs to be seen on the big screen at least once. I've decided to share an essay that I wrote about Days of Heaven some seven years ago for a film class. Looking it over again, it's very much, for better or worse, a snapshot of where I was as a writer back then.
If you haven't seen the film, you probably shouldn't read the essay, since it's more analysis driven than review-based, so, yeah, there are SPOILERS. Here we go:
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a testament to an acuity of vision rarely seen in modern cinema. The film is a period piece that transcends its time and setting to paint with broad strokes whose trajectories can be read and applied universally to any era.
After opening with a collage of vintage pictures intended to apply setting for the action, we meet Abby and Bill who are both working difficult jobs in what appear to be less than safe environs. Bill, who is shoveling coal, has an argument with his foreman that ends in violence. He flees the scene, his job undoubtedly terminated. Linda, a girl first seen in a still image at the opening of the film, is revealed as our narrator and Bill’s younger sister. Also made clear is the relationship between Abby and Bill. They are lovers, though Linda tells us “they told everybody they were brother and sister”.
One of the themes with which Malick deals here is the plight of the unskilled worker in America. The disparity of wealth between the farmhands and the farmer is so pronounced that the issue of abusive power gained through economic gluttony becomes obvious very early. The film understands that applied capitalism requires an underclass to exist, one that does not reap rewards or benefit from the system. The farmhands are mostly seen laboring in the fields. Linda tells us, “come the time the sun went up ‘til it went down, they was workin’ all the time. You didn’t work, they’d ship you right outta there. They don’t need ya. They can always get somebody else”.
When Abby is docked pay and Bill is threatened with the loss of employment for questioning the decision, we see just how trapped the workers are by the class-based system their world presents. The farmhands don’t just work in the fields; they live there too. We see them cooking in the fields, huddling together for warmth. The lone structure on the horizon is the farmer’s house. A modern edifice equipped with electricity, it contains more rooms that the single farmer could possibly require for himself. And yet, when it begins to snow, Abby and Bill have to cover themselves in straw to compensate for the lack of a roof over their head. To further distance the farmer’s economic standing from that of his laborers, we’re given access to him lounging outdoors on a couch, vacantly admiring his hat, as the farm foreman crunches numbers revealing the harvest to be the most profitable ever. All the while the sounds of work carry over from the fields.
The film’s structure is a unique synthesis resulting from the simultaneous adherence to and rejection of traditional narrative-based cinema. The emphasis on the visual element of the film heightens our awareness that the story is being drawn from memory. That our narrator is a young girl allows us to accept the abstractions and playfulness of youthful misunderstanding that naturally occur as she relays her story. Whereas a grown narrator might have insight concerning the complexities of adult relationships, Linda’s worldview boils everything down to the sparest of details. In her mind, life is hard but there’s always the possibility of overcoming it all, becoming a mud doctor and “checkin’ out the ground underneath". The film does create a decipherable world with characters that make choices, have conflict and, as a result, are handed consequences for those actions. It even draws from classic literature for its major story arc, but more on that later.
Abby and Bill, thrust into lean times and situations, are characters ripe for the exploration of moral imbalance. While it’s easy to identify the types they embody, it’s the lines that are crossed that eventually define them. Early on, Linda explains the reason for the brother/sister story. She says, “My brother didn’t want anybody to know. You know how people are…you tell them somethin’ they start talkin’”. The lie, and the need to protect it, weighs heavily on both of them. When another worker asks Bill if his sister keeps him warm at night, Bill reacts violently. On several occasions, Abby tells Bill to conceal his affections because people are watching.
The couple’s moral fortitude is most notably challenged when the farmer develops an interest in Abby. The harvest season near its end, the farmer asks her to stay on with him. Bill, in the act of stealing medical supplies for a wound Abby sustained in the fields, overhears his employer being given a year to live by the physician. Knowing this, Bill views the farmer’s advances as opportunity rather than competition. In a plot development borrowed from Henry James’ “Wings of the Dove”, he encourages Abby to tell him she’ll stay. Since Malick reversed the gender roles of James’ tale, Bill can be viewed as more than merely opportunistic—he’s become a sort of pimp. In the same manner in which he justified lying about their relationship, Bill tries to rationalize his proposition. Perhaps unable to fully embrace every aspect of the plan for himself, he implies that part of his motivation derives from the other farmhands looking at her ass like she’s a whore. Despite his excuses, he’s aware that no justification will diminish the essential wrong of what he’s suggesting.
In the end, the film judges them all. The farmer, his growing suspicion and jealousy represented by the feverishly churning weather vane atop his house, finally observes Abby and Bill in one too many affectionate moments. Everything comes to a head when, in a sequence that smacks of divine retribution; locusts descend on the wheat fields. While the workers try to smoke the insects out of the fields, the farmer attacks Bill. He inadvertently lights a wagon on fire that sets the fields ablaze. When the farmhands try to put it out, he screams, “let it burn!” Consumed in fire, the field becomes hell on earth, confirming Linda’s earlier suspicion that “the devil was on the farm”. It all catches up with them. Bill, in self-defense, fatally stabs the farmer. The farm foreman and local law enforcement chase Bill down and kill him. Abby has to endure the loss of both the men in her life. And Linda? She’s forced to witness the judgment falling upon them.
With a look and emotional space all its own, Days of Heaven dances around the average testifying to the unique vision of its director. Achieving clarity and identification within impressionistic borders, Malick has given us a gift not easily digested or forgotten.
Days of Heaven runs for one-week-only at the Laurelhurst Theater beginning Friday, July 13th. More info available here.
Remember to find and "like" us on our Facebook page.
Subscribe to the blog's feed here.