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Days of Heaven
Director: Terence Malick
Screenplay: Terence Malick
Stars: Richard Gere (Bill), Brooke Adams (Abby), Sam Shepard (The Farmer), Linda Manz (Linda), Robert Wilke (The Farm Foreman), Jackie Shultis (Linda's Friend), Stuart Margolin (Mill Foreman), Tim Scott (Harvest Hand)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1978
Country: U.S.
Days of Heaven: Criterion Collection DVD
DaysofHeaven Shot for shot, Terence Malick's Days of Heaven may very well be the most beautiful color film ever made. While most films are lucky to have a few shots at “magic hour,” that brief time period when the sun has begun to set and the light takes on an ethereal quality found at no other time, Malick appears to have shot the entirety of Days of Heaven with such illumination. Although it is a period film with close attention paid to the details of life and labor in turn-of-the-century America, it feels like it takes place in a dream.

Like his other films, Days of Heaven is more poem than story, and Malick is infinitely more interested in evoking feelings than conveying narrative information. There is a consistency to Malick's cinema--from his juxtaposition of tranquility and violence, to his love of the natural world, to his insistence on using voice-over narration as a vehicle for his authorial voice--and while these traits sometimes work better than others, they find their fullest realization in Days of Heaven. Perhaps it is because of the simplicity of the plot, but Malick's artistry here feels neither misplaced (as it sometimes did in 1998's The Thin Red Line) or ponderous (as it often did in 2005's The New World). His directorial debut, Badlands (1973), was a striking reinvention of the romantic-criminals-on-the-run subgenre spawned by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but it sometimes felt too much like an academic exercise in demythologizing. Days of Heaven, on the other hand, strikes a moving balance between elegant visuals and primal human emotions. Its narrative minimalism works with, rather than against, the expansive visual palette.

The story takes place just before World War I. The two central characters, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), must flee Chicago because Bill has accidentally killed his foreman at a steel mill. Along with Bill's preteen sister, Linda (Linda Manz), they escape by train to the Texas panhandle. Pretending to be brother and sister, rather than lovers, Bill and Abby join other itinerate workers harvesting wheat on a massive farm owned by a wealthy, but abjectly alone young man (Sam Shepard). The farmer's life is literally epitomized by his Gothic-style house, which is large and beautiful and utterly and completely alone on the top of a hill, more sad than powerful. The farmer falls in love with Abby, and asks her to stay. Bill has overheard a conversation suggesting that the farmer has only a year left to live (his exact illness is left vague), and so he suggests that Abby marry him, knowing that it will provide a short-term safe haven and, when the farmer eventually dies, long-term stability.

Thus, Malick establishes a love triangle in which Abby is torn between the two men, each of whom represents a different element of masculine attractiveness. Whereas Bill is free and wild and not entirely in control of his emotions, the farmer is wealthy and accomplished, but also shy and somewhat sickly. His love for Abby is a kind of puppy love, and the manner in which she and Bill exploit it is unnerving, although strangely understandable. The story is narrated by Linda, whose drawling child voice reminds one immediately of Sissy Spacek's similar narration in Badlands. The narration, which is often a weakness in Malick's films, playing like an unneeded philosophical crutch, works here because it aligns our perspective of the film's story with Linda's. We get the sense of fading memories and dark corners that were never fully understood, which helps explain why the film is told in a fragmented form, consisting primarily of images, rather than words. While exact words are always hard to remember, exact images are not.

The majority of this tragedy is played out against a backdrop of serene beauty--a seemingly endless rolling landscape beneath a dramatic sky (although the film is supposed to be taking place somewhere near Amarillo, it was actually shot in Alberta, Canada). Credit for the film's lush visuals goes to cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who had worked with many of the most famed French New Wave directors (including François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer), as well as Barbet Schroeder and American independent Monte Hellman. Almendros had an amazing sense of the tactile properties of light, and each shot in Days of Heaven carries with it a deep emotional charge. (The great cinematographer Haskell Wexler also shot a significant portion of the film, although he gets only a billing for “additional photography” and the Oscar went to Almendros alone.)

All the beauty of the landscapes, which Malick often uses as “pillow shots” between scenes in the same manner as Yasujiro Ozu, has a cumulative power that emphasizes the ultimately miniscule nature of humankind in the natural world, a theme Malick has returned to again and again. If the romantic triangle in Days of Heaven seems somewhat slight, I think that's the point. Malick is contrasting human triviality with the grandeur of the world, which has a Biblical intensity that reaches a fever pitch in the climax when a swarm of locusts descends on the farm like a plague. The resulting fire that burns the land is like a wrathful cleansing, and it should come as no surprise that the climax of the love triangle occurs on a scorched, smoldering field, thus bringing full circle Malick's poetic vision of human frailty.

Days of Heaven Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Audio commentary featuring editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden
  • Audio interview with actor Richard Gere
  • Video interview with actor Sam Shepard
  • Video interview with cinematographer Haskell Wexler
  • Video interview with camera operator John Bailey
  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critic Adrian Martin and director of photography Nestor Almendros
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateOctober 23, 2007

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    While the single-disc, bare-bones edition of Days of Heaven that has been available for several years from Paramount is quite good, this Criterion disc presents a new transfer that, while not revelatory, is still an improvement. The image is just a tad sharper and has better contrast, and interestingly enough, colors seem slightly more muted than in the original transfer. However, because Criterion's digitally restored high-definition digital transfer, which was taken from a new interpositive struck from the original 35mm A/B camera negative, was supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick, editor Billy Weber, and camera operator John Bailey, we have to assume that the slight differences in color and hue better represent the intended look of the film. On a side note, the film, like a number of recent Criterion releases, is formatted in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, even though the film was projected theatrically at 1.85:1. This is a small difference not worth quibbling about except for the fact that Criterion has historically been so specific about maintaining the original theatrical aspect ratio in their transfers (in their defense, according to the liner notes, 1.78:1 is Malick's “preferred” aspect ratio). The newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack, which was transferred and remastered from the original 4.1 magnetic tracks, is magnificent. Ennio Morricone's dreamlike score, as well as Camille Saint-Saëns's haunting “Carnival of the Animals,” which plays over the opening credits and at crucial points in the film, has never sounded richer and more beautiful. The subtle ambient effects in the surround channels do a wonderful job of enveloping you in the natural atmosphere.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    If there are only slight differences in the transfer from the old Paramount disc, Criterion has distinguished their release with a solid array of supplements that illuminate the film's artistry. Since Terence Malick is notoriously elusive when it comes to talking about his work, it is not surprising that he does not join editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden on the screen-specific audio commentary. However, the four participants are long-time Malick collaborators and have much to offer in their discussion of the film's production. We also get to hear the thoughts of actors Richard Gere and Sam Shepard in a pair of interviews. Gere's audio-only interview (22 min.) is newly recorded, while Shepard's video interview (12 min.) was recorded in 2002. There are also a pair of new video interviews with cinematographers John Bailey (20 min.), who worked as a camera operator on the film, and Haskell Wexler (12 min.), who is credited with “additional photography” but was really responsible for as much of the film's look as Nestor Almendros (who, sadly, died back in 1991). It is particularly gratifying to get to hear Wexler talk about his work on the film and see how he has come to terms with his deep involvement in the film and subsequent minimal credit. Finally, there is a thick insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Adrian Martin and a chapter from director of photography Nestor Almendros' autobiography.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Paramount Home Entertainment


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