Criterion // 1978 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 17th, 2010
"She was a good friend of mine."
It's hard to believe that Terrence Malick has only directed four movies since first making Badlands in 1973 (he took twenty years off after his first two films), but easy to understand why: each of his movies is a carefully constructed, dream-like masterpiece -- the kind of work that can't be cranked out like so much Hollywood product. Originally released as a Criterion DVD in 2007, Malick's second and arguably best film Days of Heaven now gets an incredible HD upgrade thanks to the fine people at the Criterion Collection.
A young steelworker, Bill (Richard Gere, Shall We Dance), gets in a scuffle with his foreman and accidentally kills him. He runs away to Texas with his younger sister (Linda Manz, The Warriors) and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams, The Dead Zone), where they find work in the fields of a farmer (Sam Shepard, Leo) who is terminally ill. Bill, posing as Abby's brother and believing the farmer will die soon, encourages Abby to take up with him so that the pair can be set for life when he passes away. Before long, though, the farmer begins to notice the way that Abby and Bill touch one another or exchange looks, suspecting there might be more to their relationship than just sibling affection. Then the grasshoppers show up.
Has mankind ever felt smaller than in Terrence Malick's 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven? Scene after scene, moment after moment, we watch ourselves on screen against some of the most beautiful outdoor photography ever captured on film. We appear tiny, insignificant, dwarfed by endless fields of wheat and burning orange skies. Even our problems are small. They are the problems of man: jealousy, lust, anger leading to violence. A typical love triangle feels meaningless when faced with true acts of God -- burning fields, plagues of grasshoppers. Our problems, as they say, don't amount to a hill of beans in this world, and Days of Heaven never lets us forget it.
Days of Heaven is a beautiful movie, to be sure, but it is also haunting and sad. It's a film about death and loss -- not just of mortal characters, but of a period and a way of life. The quiet farmer is forcibly pushed out of the way by the younger, aggressive steelworker, but even he can't find a place to fit in. Bill is, quite simply, wrong for this world; after nearly two decades of quiet, staid performances, we forget how reckless and alive Richard Gere was capable of being in his younger days. He is his own force of nature in Days of Heaven, creating chaos wherever he goes and acting against the Way of the World. Of course, the World has no qualms about answering back.
All of this is observed at a distance, not just by Malick's omniscient, gorgeous-but-dispassionate camera, but by a teenage girl who sees the events unfold before her but doesn't understand them. She narrates the story in passages that alternate between rambling, childish musings and haunting, poetic descriptions of dreams and visions that she herself doesn't seem to comprehend. Malick has always been a fan of disassociated, potentially unreliable narration (it was Sissy Spacek in Badlands and a host of young soldiers in The Thin Red Line), but it's in Days of Heaven where it works best. In Linda Manz, he captures one of those authentic performances that seems less like an actor playing a part than an actual person and a stroke of kismet (it's admitted on the commentary that one of her voice overs, about the end of the world, was captured by Malick simply recording the actress recounting a story that had been told to her -- there's nothing "acted" about it). She's our guide into a story in which young lovers find paradise only to ruin it; one by one, they are kicked out of Eden for their sins.
Blu-ray was practically invented for movies like Days of Heaven, and Criterion's 1080p HD transfer is one of the best I've seen. Just like the film's photography, the disc's 1.78:1 transfer is gorgeous and perfect; the subdued color palette (all golds and sepias) is warm and lush, flesh tones are spot-on and fine detail is incredible (it's so good that I found myself fixated on Gere's fingernails during a conversation on a porch between him and Shepard). A thin layer of grain is visible over the entire movie, making this possibly the closest I've come to replicating the film experience at home. Even with the sound off, I could watch Criterion's Days of Heaven Blu-ray over and over again and my appreciation for the film would never diminish. The DTS-HD Master Audio track is also impressive but a lot more subtle and subdued; dialogue and (particularly) Linda Manz's wonderful narration is clear and strong in the front channels, while the surrounding channels are reserved for the immersive sounds of nature (soft breezes, the occasional swarm of grasshoppers) and Ennio Morricone's gorgeous score -- one of my all-time favorites. Criterion's Blu-ray provides a first-rate audio/video presentation.
While Criterion's supplemental material for Days of Heaven is equally terrific, there's nothing new to be found on this HD edition; all of it has been ported over from the 2007 DVD release of the film. A commentary track gathers art director Jack Fisk, editor Billy Weber, casting director Diane Crittenden and costume designer Patricia Norris (some recorded together, some recorded separately) to talk about the making of the film, and it manages to be a laid-back but very informative track (it's revealed early on that Malick wanted to cast John Travolta in the lead role so badly that he was willing to defer his salary; while I think he would have seemed a little out of place, Travolta in the late-'70s would have been pretty great in the part) without a lot of dead space -- something Criterion has always been good at. Also included are some very good interviews with stars Richard Gere and Sam Shepard, as well as a fantastic piece with director of photography Haskel Wexler (who had to take over as D.P. when Nestro Almendros left the film due to a previous commitment) and camera operator John Bailey. The pair discuss the making of the film and how the gorgeous photography was achieved, as well as address some of the controversy surrounding Wexler's participation in the movie. It's nice to see that the film's Oscar-winning photography is given such attention in the supplemental section.
Like most Criterion releases, the Blu-ray of Days of Heaven also comes with an extensive booklet featuring two essays on the movie: "On Earth As It Is In Heaven," a critical piece by Adrian Martin, and "Shooting Days of Heaven," an excerpt from Almendros' autobiography A Man with a Camera.
Obviously, Terrence Malick isn't for everyone. There are those who would find his films too slow or too cold, who require plot more than imagery and tone, or who might not respond the same way to Manz's odd, unmannered narration. I can't argue with those people, even if I wish they would open themselves up to Malick and to Days of Heaven. Perhaps I'm lucky that I first came to the film later in life; as a younger man, I might have had the same objections. As it is, though, Days of Heaven is one of my favorite films of the 1970s -- perhaps of all time -- and this Criterion Blu-ray is the best version of the movie we've ever had. I can't recommend it highly enough.
A near-perfect movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG