If the days in heaven look like Days of Heaven, then a blissful time should surely be had. Terrence Malick always has imagery on his mind. What it conveys emotionally, and why it is used takes precedence over his story, characters and writing. That is not to say the Richard Gere-led love triangle blossoming on the fields of a vast farm is anything to be snobbish about. Malick portrays confidence with both his visuals and his storytelling abilities. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, though, not to those who have experienced his debut, Badlands. With Days of Heaven, he takes the tragedy at the core of his freshman feature, translating it to a different location, but with many of the same personal touches and themes.
Self-assured destruction is lingering in the background. It looms over the head of Bill (Gere) as he overhears a farmer who says he has a year to live. He is moved, not by passion or guilt, but by profit, attempting to marry off his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), to a dying farmer (Sam Shepard). Inheriting the fortune would be quite the haul for a man wanted for killing his former boss. Whether that is a true accident or an act of cowardice in the face of taunting is up to the viewer, Gere gives it his all and presents the act as something we can consider a genuine mistake or piece of brutal malice. Either way, it has an effect on how he conducts his life on the farm.
His methods are as maddening and unique as the direction Malick presents. Invaluable imagery is crafted with innovative methods. A swarm of locusts appear, their application to the film some truly divine camera trickery. But its story is primitive, and not up to scratch alongside those incredible, emotive visuals. Malick would tackle this trouble for most of his career, but where Badlands had simple rebellion mired in murder and escape, Days of Heaven does not have the Bonnie and Clyde feel to it. Bill has done wrong but is committed to keeping himself on firm ground, whereas the protagonists of Badlands are scared, panicked, and just a little bit mad. Those first two features of Malick are linked not just by the same name on the directing chair, but their theme and what the director wishes to say. Within Days of Heaven, it is sometimes unclear.
A gorgeous movie indeed, Days of Heaven has the benefit of its visual defiance. There is a grand and approachable scale to Malick’s work here, something he would slip away from in his later career, and regain with A Hidden Life. He is a director whose cinematography can often interfere with the projection of the story, and there are times Malick’s strong storytelling abilities can turn into generalised fluff that wishes to dictate a larger than possible surge of emotion. Days of Heaven strikes a simple balance and conducts itself with inspired maturity. Bill writhes and slithers his way through life, hoping to hold out for an easy life without having to pay his dues. We must wish for that at some point, deep down, that a carefree trajectory will take over. It doesn’t happen for Bill, nor will it happen for us, but Days of Heaven makes it clear that, if it did happen, there would be tragedy and dismay all over the place.