Days of Heaven
Director: Terrence Malick. Cast: Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, Linda Manz, Sam Shepard, Stuart Margolin, Robert J. Wilke, Jackie Shultis. Screenplay: Terrence Malick.

Once again, as in Badlands, writer-director Terrence Malick creates a film that has all the rich density of a literary experience but is made irrefutably cinematic in its lavish, uncompromised visual detail. The story is a complex (and yet simple!) one narrated by a truly strange character: a young girl named Linda (Linda Manz) who bums train rides and lives a hand-to-mouth, migratory life with her brother Bill (Richard Gere) and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams). These two present themselves as brother and sister to outsiders, mostly to maintain their privacy. Then again, they don't make great efforts to represent themselves as much of anything to most outsiders, since Bill's habit of violent confrontation with employers often gives a certain value to anonymous travel.

Linda remembers the events of Days of Heaven as one of the trio's "adventures," which if not quite a total romanticizing is still a notably glass-half-full description of a backbreaking, uncertain lifestyle. All three "family members," after all, must always be alert to new means for acquiring food and residence, though Linda's childish perspective doesn't show us the effects of worry or distress that we assume Bill and Abby at least to feel from time to time. The dolorous quality of Linda's narration implies that she feels both strain and sadness, but either she speaks from such a number of years in the future, or else she disavows (by determination or by reflex) any excess of emotion that she seems less troubled or distraught than she might be. In any event, greater security for all seems finally to arrive at a farm owned by Sam Shepard and his father, though the terms of that security become all too clear—threatening to the "unit" so far composed of Bill, Abby, and Linda—when Shepard's character, known simply as The Farmer, asks for Abby's hand in marriage.

A frequent hallmark of Malick's immense talent is his ability to evoke a character's spirit and clearly delineate the contours of his or her mind without stockpiling psychological details or making the character's behavior predictable or plot-bound: Bill and Abby's personas have the emotional truth but also the surprising reticence and occasional elusiveness of dream-visions, which from the vantage of Linda's memory, is exactly what they are. Also, Malick's projects—which now come to three with the release of the extraordinary The Thin Red Line—assume marginal and atypical points of view, but remain wholly faithful to the perspectives of the moony characters (Sissy Spacek's unlikely Bonnie to Martin Sheen's Clyde in Badlands, the eerily waifish Linda here, and the baffled philosopher-cum-soldier played by Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line) whom he, almost alone among writer-directors, would trust to tell his stories. The events he describes—because "narratives" is a word that seems too standard and literal to describe what Malick puts on screen—grow more interesting and have more of the shimmer of unique, subjective experience than they would if grounded from a more traditional character's point of view . . . or God forbid from the displaced, objective view of History that so many period projects assume.

The other recurring quality of Malick's work is the utter rapture of the cinematography. Malick recruits his photographers with the same kind of ace intuition with which he casts actors, and his decision pays off here with Néstor Almendros' unbelievably gorgeous images. Almendros, clearly a skilled photographer in his own right, works even more impressively here with a director who grasps the need for images that lift his material out of its debt to literary or other mediums, and an editor, Billy Weber, who brilliantly combines wide exterior shots of rolling plains with standard close-ups of characters and extreme close-ups on the working mouth of a single, feeding grasshopper. The joint result of Almendros' camera work (assisted by Haskell Wexler and, buried down there in the credits as a "camera operator," In the Line of Fire's John Bailey) and Weber's editing is to render a seamless visual experience encompassing the broadest vistas and the smallest shadows. Linda, by extension, seems able to portray for us the entire world that surrounds the events she describes. For a contrasting image of how such photography can be misapplied or under-appreciated by filmmakers, and how a narrower, more fake evocation results, observe how Almendros' photography is reduced to simple postcard prettiness in Robert Benton's lethargic and all-dressed-up-but-going-nowhere Places in the Heart.

I suspect Malick is not for everyone, but I also suspect he would appeal to more people than have necessarily tried out any of his movies. The Thin Red Line may change all that with the considerable hype surrounding the picture, but it may also be greated with such uneasiness or consternation from folks expecting a standard "war picture" that a revival of interest in Malick may not take on the scale it deserves. I implore you nonetheless to take a look at Days of Heaven, or for that matter Badlands, neither of which sacrifice momentum, excitement, or depth of feeling to the meditative, expressionistic style in which Malick not only specializes, but of which he has very nearly proven himself master. Days of Heaven is startling and unusual, but also beautiful and carefully crafted: a celestial experience, indeed, that I could pursue for days on end. Grade: A

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Best Costume Design: Patricia Norris
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone
Best Sound: John Wilkinson, Robert W. Glass Jr., John T. Reitz, and Barry Thomas

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Terrence Malick

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography
National Society of Film Critics: Best Director; Best Cinematography
National Board of Review: Best Picture
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone

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