Criterion // 1978 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // October 23rd, 2007
"This farmer, he didn't know when he first saw her, or what it was about her that caught his eye. Maybe it was the way the wind blew through her hair." -- Linda (Linda Manz)
Terrence Malick had made only one feature film, Badlands, before he directed Days of Heaven. His sophomore effort was something of a sensation; Malick won the Best Director award at Cannes, as well as from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. The National Board of Review named Days of Heaven its Best Picture of 1978. It came up a bit short at the Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for cinematography and receiving nominations for its costumes, music, and sound, but getting no mentions in the major categories.
Perhaps the ultimate outsider, Malick waited 20 years before directing his next film, and continued interest in Days of Heaven made 1998's The Thin Red Line one of the most highly anticipated films of the decade.
It is almost redundant to talk about the beauty of Days of Heaven. I have seen it referred to as the most beautiful film ever shot. While I personally tend to shy away from such absolutes, I have no argument against that sentiment.
For years, it seems the only version available for home video and television was a horrendous transfer with a screwed-up aspect ratio; I still remember the prominent, swinging boom mike at around the 40-minute mark. Paramount released a bare-bones edition with a decent transfer in 2000.
Now, Criterion steps up to the plate and gives us what might be the definitive version of this classic.
Bill (Richard Gere, Chicago) and Abby (Brooke Adams, Key Exchange) are lovers in Chicago, just before the First World War. He works in a factory, and when he accidentally kills his supervisor in an altercation, they flee, with Bill's barely adolescent sister, Linda (Linda Manz, Out of the Blue), in tow.
They head for the Texas Panhandle and get hired on at a farm. Bill and Abby pass themselves off as brother and sister because, as Linda says, "You know how people are, you tell 'em somethin' and they start talkin'."
The Farmer (Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff) who owns the spread takes an interest in Abby. When Bill learns that the Farmer is ill and has less than a year to live, he encourages Abby to accept the man's attentions.
Soon, the Farmer and Abby marry, and she and her "siblings" are living in the big house. Bill and the Farmer have an uneasy relationship, but Bill tolerates the wealthy man; he'll die soon, Abby will inherit, and the three of them will live happily ever after.
But love seems to be a cure-all: the Farmer is not getting sicker. As a matter-of-fact, he seems to be improving.
And Abby is no longer seeing this as a marriage of convenience.
She's grown. She's changed.
She loves the Farmer.
Days of Heaven is an overpowering sensory experience. Every aspect of the look and sound of this film is exquisite, from Jack Fisk's art direction to Patricia Norris's costumes, from Ennio Morricone's haunting score (as well as an excerpt from Camille Saint-Saëns's "Carnival of the Animals" and Leo Kottke's "Enderlin") to, of course, the cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.
All the exteriors for the film were shot with natural light. Almendros did not use any fill lights to accentuate the actors' faces. They are generally backlit and illuminated by source light bounced off the ground. Much of the film was shot at "magic hour," twilight, producing a moody, ethereal effect. The scope is magnificent and otherworldly, the scenes carefully composed, like paintings. Emotions are conveyed visually, without long passages of dialogue, and the cinematography and editing not only record the action, but comment on it.
The story is simple, a parable that culminates with a Hell-on-Earth scene of devastation. The film frequently references The Bible, and the admonition that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit should not be forgotten. Abby entered into the union with the Farmer dishonestly; when her love becomes true, it is too late to bring salvation, and nothing can stop the Farmer's growing suspicions as he observes Abby and her "brother" interacting.
Even though Bill and Abby's scheme is immoral, they are not villains. While it's impossible not to see the misguidance in their plan (the same one Henry James concocted for The Wings of the Dove, only with the genders transposed), it's executed with a clear-eyed logic and efficiency. Had all gone as expected, the Farmer would have known love, and Bill, Abby, and Linda would have known comfort and security.
But nature -- human nature as well as the cosmos -- is the medium here, the source of all conflict and resolution. Those same facets of nature that leave us breathless with joy and wonder, when toyed with or defied, can be monumentally cruel. Look at the quote that starts this review, with Linda attributing the Farmer's initial attraction to Abby as seeing the way "the wind blew through her hair," as though nature itself has a hand in setting up the circumstances that will lead to so much tragedy.
Days of Heaven has been criticized as being too pretty, of being a collection of striking visuals that dwarf an underdeveloped story. I've not found this to be the case. It's undeniably beautiful, but it is a melancholy beauty. There is a poignant inevitability that suffuses the film and allows us to connect with these people whose passions and sentiments are as often expressed through silences, glances, and movements as through the brief, but eloquent, bits of dialogue.
Brooke Adams has a soulful, unconventional beauty. While Abby starts out as something of a cipher, Adams makes her transition from reluctant grifter to lady of the manor natural and believable. At the end of the film, we see her change again, and we realize that she's grown harder. The moral code she'd spoken of earlier has crumbled, and she comfortably slips back into the world of marginalized survivors.
The men are a study in contrasts: Gere's Bill, passionate, streetwise, impetuous, muscular, and dark, and Shepard's Farmer, awkward, cultured, trusting, lanky, and fair. Bill is a pragmatic cynic. He's not yet completely beaten down, but he knows his limitations. He thinks nothing of basically prostituting Abby for an eventual windfall. We sense the Farmer has been sheltered, has most likely lived in the big house his whole life, was born to privilege, and has worked to maintain it. When the film was released, Gere was probably best known as the stud who'd bedded and menaced Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, while Shepard was famous as a playwright, and the contrast of the physical and the intellectual adds an interesting layer to this casting.
Fifteen years old when she made the film, but tiny and able to play younger, Linda Manz was not a trained professional actress. Her tough New York accent and somewhat hard looks and manner appealed to Malick, and he cast her without putting her through a rigorous audition. In the commentary, we learn that much of Manz's narration was not scripted, and Malick relied on her instincts to convey what he wanted. Her description of the Apocalypse, for instance, was her retelling of the story that had been described to her.
Malick made Manz's voice over the centerpiece of the film, and when editing, often found shots that supported her commentary rather than the other way around. This narration is perfect and true, authentic and pure, funny and heartbreaking. We already have an idea where Linda is going to end up. She is an aged child, and she will be telling these same stories to the same random listeners in 40 years -- if she lives that long, if she isn't struck down by some disease and suffering on the street or in a charity ward, if she isn't left to freeze or swelter in a field or an alley, if she isn't bludgeoned or stabbed by a new friend or lover.
It's this inherent understanding, that we are not watching and listening to an exceptional child who will grow to be an exceptional adult, but rather that these Days of Heaven are solitary, fleeting moments in this young life, that helps make the film so profoundly moving and emotionally textured.
Criterion does not pack this disc with supplements; rather, it chooses wisely and presents extra material that complements the film and enriches the experience. Virtually every prominent member of the production, save for Manz and Adams, is represented here.
While they did not snag the notoriously enigmatic Malick for a commentary, he did supervise the transfer, along with editor Billy Weber and camera operator John Bailey. The image here is awesome. Short of seeing a remastered print in a theater, this is as good a rendition as you're going to find of this film. The restored Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is perfect, full and rich, free of pops, hissing, and any extraneous noise.
We get a wonderful, anecdote-filled commentary track with Weber, Fisk, Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden. Days of Heaven was Weber's first film, and Fisk had worked on a handful of mainly low-budget movies, including Malick's Badlands, where he met his future wife, Sissy Spacek. Their recollections of working with Malick are tremendously affectionate and respectful but refreshingly not completely reverential. There are no hushed tones and gasps of awe here. Some of the more entertaining stories involve casting. Gere, Adams, and Shepard were not the first choices for the roles; we can only imagine how the film would have worked with John Travolta, Genevieve Bujold, and Tommy Lee Jones as its leads.
Gere provides an audio-only interview (over scenes from the film) in which he discusses on his take on the themes of Days of Heaven and reminisces about the other actors, the technical aspects, and working with Malick. Weather-beaten literary cowboy Shepard, in an interview from 2002, ruminates on the context of the film in terms of the changing West of the era. If you think Quentin Tarantino invented the "riff," you'll want to catch this great stream-of-consciousness recollection and impression from the man who wrote True West and Fool for Love.
Cinematography icon Wexler, who finished the film after Almendros left to shoot Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women, shares his insights about making the film and trying to adapt his style to what his friend Almendros began. Bailey helps put the production in the context of its time, pointing out that even though the setting and period were different from the gritty, mainly urban locations of the '70s "wave," the filmmaking and much of the philosophy were very similar. Since union rules prohibited Almendros from actually operating the camera, Bailey did much of the shooting, using the at-the-time new Panaglide camera, which was Panavision's version of the Steadicam. He has some wonderful recollections of working on Days of Heaven and the technical aspects of the production.
Although Almedros died in 1992, his presence is strongly felt in the interviews and commentaries, and he does, in a way, get to speak: the section of his autobiography, Man With a Camera, in which he writes of his experience making Days of Heaven is reprinted as part of a 42-page booklet that also include stills from the film and an essay on Malick by film writer Adrian Martin.
Great filmmaking. Great DVD. Unqualified recommendation.
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #48
* Top 100 Films: #14
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Editor Billy Weber, Art Director Jack Fisk, Costume Designer Patricia Norris, and Casting Director Dianne Crittenden
* Audio interview with Richard Gere (21:00)
* Interview with Sam Shepard (12:00)
* Interview with Haskell Wexler (11:00)
* Interview with John Bailey (20:00)
* Essay: "On Earth as It Is in Heaven" by Adrian Martin
* Excerpt from Nestor Almendros's autobiography, Man With a Camera: "Shooting Days of Heaven"
* Article on Terrence Malick
* Rouge Press: Adrian Martin Articles
* Sam Shepard Site
* The Gere Foundation