You can see Terrence Malick’s fingerprints all over this film and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It has his eye for the breathtakingly beautiful visuals and there is almost a spiritual quality of reverence to its pacing and tone. Slow, methodical, and ultimately deeply impactful. And there are so many Biblical parallels that can be taken hold of as well.
It’s as if Malick cannot bear to be stuck in doors. He hates having walls surrounding him especially when a camera is involved. He takes considerable interest in the sky, the landscapes, and creatures inhabiting the space around him. It’s not just his human subjects either, but everything of all shapes, sizes, and sounds. He cares about the exterior more than the interior, the earth and the heavens rather than anything made by the hands of man. It’s that type of approach that allows for such breathtaking visuals from Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, because the priorities are set. The sky is literally the limit.
The story opens during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and a young man named Bill (Richard Gere) is forced to flee his mining job for Texas taking along his girlfrined Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda. They travel around hitching a ride on a train looking for work, until they finally find seasonal jobs at a Texas ranch in the fields. Life is relatively tranquil, although the work is hard. Bill maintains that Abby is his sister to keep people from getting ideas, but they are very close.
However, the young reserved owner of the ranch is instantly taken by her. She does not share his feelings, but a marital union is formed on the advice of Bill. After all, then she would have a cut of the man’s inheritance and the farmer doesn’t suspect a thing. So in this way the love triangle is put into place, and yet relations still remain genial between everyone. This is a life they can get used to, especially for young Linda. That is, until the man notices the intimacy of Bill and Abby and it angers him deeply. It’s only exasperated because Abby is starting to have feelings for him causing the web of romance and feelings to become ever more complicated.
And of course, in the day of the locust the final restraints holding the farmer in place are released, and he unleashes on Bill with all his wrath. He is incensed beyond reason and once again Bill finds himself in another incriminating situation which he must flee from. Abby must start over with a new life and Linda finds herself at a boarding house. It’s not where we thought we would leave them, but it nonetheless satisfies as a half-resolution. It might as well be.
Many might notice that the narrative of Days of Heaven is rather thin, being held together by the meandering narration of Linda Manz. All this took Malick over 2 years to weave together into cohesion and it may not be a perfect fit, but it was thoroughly captivating, because his film-making style is so visually robust. It’s often shot at gloriously magical times of day where the outlines of people and things become beautiful contours or stylized shapes. The sky is often bursting with color or warm like a painting of pastels. Those are the images that you are left with.
On her part, Brooke Adams is a natural beauty much in the same way of a Katharine Ross. Richard Gere is necessary with his playful and still fiery ways. Sam Shepard has a plainness and a calmness to him, but he really made this film with his explosion of emotion at the end, because something needed to break through the muted characterizations. It changed how we see him and really ups the tension of a generally restrained film.