Days Of Heaven was acclaimed director Terrence Malick's second feature film, following his lauded debut Badlands. The film earned Nestor Almendros an Oscar for "Best Cinematography" and Malick a win at Cannes for "Best Director." Following the release of the film, Malick began a 20-year professional silence before returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line.
Like many during the early 1900s, Bill (Richard Gere) becomes a traveling hired hand, journeying wherever there is work. Along with him are his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz). Finding jobs as wheat harvesters in the Texas panhandle, the trio set up a new life for themselves. Bill and Abby pretend to be siblings, in order to keep a low profile. But their plan becomes more complicated when the terminally ill owner of the land takes a fancy to Abby, offering her and her supposed siblings a life of comfort if she would become his bride. Bill, in a season of blind opportunism, encourages her to play along, hoping that as soon as he dies, they can all live off the spoils of his large inheritance.
This setting – with allusions to the Old Testament account of Abraham and Sarah – is only the first of several scenes that convey a sense of Biblical foreboding. The plague of locusts that infest the wheat fields is a more direct example, and Linda's narration at the beginning of the film regarding the coming Apocalypse can be taken as blatantly or as poetical as the viewer sees fit. Some instances are plot-driven, some are purely visual; but all are buried beneath a layer of philosophical quietude.
The films of Terrence Malick tend to hearken back to the days of silent film. There is a visual narrative to his style that for some modern moviegoers might seem much too subtle, and which necessitates a sparseness of dialogue that is out of step with conventional films. Richard Gere remarks in one of the supplemental interviews for Days Of Heaven that film shouldn't be about a bunch of talking. Film should focus on what no other art form can convey. Through Malick's lens, that focus becomes arresting visuals that center around humanity and nature colliding.
In the opening scenes, we find Bill at his job in a steel mill. The roar of furnaces and clanging of metals drowns out any other sound as we watch Bill and his foreman get into a heated argument, then a fight, which results in a fatal blow to the foreman that puts Bill on the run. We never hear what prompts the confrontation, but we can clearly see what happens. The dialogue is extraneous to the emotions conveyed, and the journey that results. There are many scenes like this throughout the movie, oftentimes because the principals simply aren't talking. We are invited into the lives of these characters by watching their emotions, as much as we are by what they are saying.
Working along with this is Malick's usual affinity for having one of the characters provide narration for the film. The narration rarely recaps action onscreen, but rather takes on a more earthy and philosophical edge. It's as if we weave in and out of their inner monologue for glimpses of their reactions to the world. And all of these elements serve to give focus to the images onscreen. Whether conventionally descriptive, or more artistically abstract, there is a haunting beauty to each scene of Malick's films. They are paintings in motion; galleries with explanations along the way to guide your eyes through the story. And they are also brilliantly accessible. There is nothing abstract about the base stories he utilizes, but they are made richer through his styling. But far from style over substance, they are both. They are artistically crafted, but always to the end of enlivening our view of the world and the struggles of a broken humanity.
The Blu-ray edition of Days Of Heaven comes well after Criterion released the restored DVD counterpart, but there is an impressive amount of restoration visible over the prior Paramount DVD version. The video transfer here pays handsome tribute to the amazing cinematography of the movie. Even when the color palette is often pastiche – awash in fields of almost sepia-toned earth and tans – the detail of each shot is rewarding (with the exception of one oddly soft and overly grainy dusk scene). This is a beautiful film, and the high-definition transfer is top notch.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is strong, although by the nature of the film doesn't go out of its way to impress. Everything is appropriately spaced and some of the ambient nature sounds can be quite immersive. The dialogue tracks feel like they were recorded in various settings, and especially a couple of the narration segments feel overly wedged into the center channel. But I can only imagine that these are true to the source material. Overall, this is a very good audio track.
The bonus materials for this release are not overly abundant, although all are rich with quality content (something I can't often say for bonus materials). The lead item is a commentary track featuring editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden. Although I was expecting something heavy on technical issues, it is a surprisingly well-balanced track. The specialties of those assembled combine to give a very thorough look at the film. Many have also worked on most of Malick's films, and thus speak to his style of directing in general.
There are four interview segments included, all of which intersperse scenes from the movie with the interviewees. Richard Gere (HD, 21:52) offers an excellent look back at making the film, as well as an examination of Malick's directorial style. Likewise, Sam Shepard (HD, 12:32) discusses his fondness for the material as well as his experience as a first-time actor. Camera operator John Bailey (HD, 20:26) gives a wealth of insight into Malick's background as a photographer, his working relationship with DPs Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, and many of the shooting and lighting conditions for the film. Finally, Haskell Wexler (HD, 11:34) offers his views on coming into the film halfway through and filling the shoes of Nestor Almendros.
As is typical with Criterion releases, there is a generous booklet included. This one features an essay by Adrian Martin, entitled "On Earth as It Is in Heaven." There is also a very lengthy excerpt from Nestor Almendros's autobiography A Man With A Camera entitled "Shooting Days Of Heaven" where he discusses in detail his experience working on the film. It includes some in-depth reflections on camera techniques used with Days Of Heaven, which both photographers and videographers should find of particular interest.
Although the films of Terrance Malick could easily be lumped into the art-house category, they are some of the most accessible to be found, offering moving glimpses into the friction between man, nature. and "progress." Days Of Heaven is perhaps his most immediate and structured (and shortest) offering, but also one of his most beautiful.