And that’s not just my opinion. A lot of people who watch a lot more movies than I do and know a lot more about making them agree. Just ask Roger Ebert. There are moments in this movie where it’s like a Wyeth painting come to life. Pastoral and lush and very, very quietly sprawling out before you.
Of course, when I went to see it I was 13 and knew nothing about film making or storytelling or cinematography, I just read the Rona Barrett gossip magazines and thought Richard Gere was cute. And while Richard Gere was no doubt really, really cute in this movie, seeing Days of Heaven at that age had a profound effect on how I see and interpret things. It was like no other movie I’d ever seen.
The storytelling itself, what there is of it, is quite linear. It goes from start to finish with no tangents or side stories, you know why Bill, Abby and Linda leave Chicago to become migrant workers in Texas, you understand how they become involved with the Farmer and the conclusion is inevitable. But you don’t go to a Malick movie to see a literal story. He’s got weirder things to show you. Like a lot of close-ups of crickets and pheasants in silhouette. And whatever that animal is that goes swimming out during one of the happy family scenes. Because happiness doesn’t exist for Malick without some weird natural element coming in and freaking you the fuck out. Although, granted, that could just be my bemusement at Malick’s love of including images of animals in nature at moments when they’re least germane to the scene.
No, you don’t go to a Malick movie to watch a yarn. You go to almost enter a fugue state where you’re transported into the film and find yourself marveling at the glory of a sprawling Texas wheat field or wondering about the lonely figure on a hill. The action occurs incidentally. Even the dialogue and voice over float into and out of the scene. Hell, in a couple of scenes the dialogue is completely obliterated by the sounds of progress and technology. (Or, more literally, a steel mill and a wheat thresher.) Malick lays a lot of things out for you to consider, sometimes things that are in direct conflict with each other, and leaves it up to you to decide what they mean.
Of course, if this is Malick’s most beautiful and elegant film, a large part of the credit should go to the film’s two cinematographers, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler (side note: do you have to have a bitching name to be a cinematographer?), as well as nature itself. Primarily using natural light and shooting mostly at sunrise and sunset, the film has a golden glow to it that washes over you, but also gives the film a sense of history. Like you’re watching someone’s memory rather than the action as it occurred. This in concert with the prolonged silences force the viewer to really evaluate and theorize on what he or she’s seeing. And what you’re seeing is often nature at its most sublime, either in sprawling vistas or tight close-ups of the life that exists all around us but few of us take the time to notice.
I’ve watched this movie numerous times since it was first released, always with years intervening, and wondering what or how I’d respond to it again. And every time it takes my breath away. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, or ever, see it as soon as possible. (Below is one of my favorite scenes.) It’s just too graceful and beautiful and sad to be missed.