As Terrence Malick enjoys what could be the most attention he’s attracted in three decades (or, by his measure, three films) with this year’s divisive art flick Tree Of Life, the BFI are releasing a restoration of Days Of Heaven, one of the two films that made his reputation in the 1970s, before his two-decade hiatus from the industry that lasted until 1998’s The Thin Red Line.
In Days Of Heaven, a too-brooding, too-handsome Richard Gere stars as Bill, a young worker who, after a fatal tussle with a steel mill foreman, gathers up his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) and abandons 1916 Chicago to harvest crops out West. Posing as siblings, the trio work for a rich, terminally ill farmer (Sam Shepard), who soon takes a shine to Abby. Spying an easy route to fortune, Bill convinces Abby to indulge the farmer’s advances, so they can score his lands once he croaks.
The film is not so much driven by plot, as it is by imagery, and the Academy Award-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros (with additional photography from Haskell Wexler) is utterly compelling. Resisting soft-focus, picture card representations of rolling corn fields and rural tranquility, the film’s look is very much a dusty, early 20th century counterpart to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with its painterly approach to exterior landscapes, location shooting and natural light.
Especially in this painstaking restoration, the shots that Malick, Almendros and crew come up with are consistently breathtaking, whether they be of endless vistas, scenes of harvesting, or a scarecrow silhouetted against the twilight sky.
However, Malick is often overwhelmed by his ambitious sense of scale. And while this makes for some quite effective broad-stroke moments, on a personal level the film seems remarkably superficial. A surprising amount of the film’s deep emotional effectiveness comes from external, post-production sources.
The wistful, homespun framing is entirely a product of the meandering, semi-improvised narration (recorded long after the fact with Linda Manz), and the recurring motifs from Leo Kottke’s buzzing, droning twelve-string guitar.
Indeed, even the film’s most bravura moments are indebted to Ennio Morricone, who contributes a typically exquisite score in this romantic, sometimes nostalgic set of cues. This is particularly evident in the scene where a swarm of hornets decimates the crop, with the howling, traumatised farmer dousing his livelihood in flame. Malick lets loose here, as man is suffocated by biblical plague, and chaos rages along with the fire.
It is a terrifying sight to behold, but Morricone’s score – which, reportedly, he contributed under the condition that it would remain intact – is an unsettling, operatic masterpiece, building from restrained, strangled strings and bass-heavy rumbles to an awful crescendo: a wretched march of the profane.
It almost makes Days Of Heaven’s soundtrack album a more tantalising proposition than the film itself, because Malick wilfully strips his film of many of the basic qualities of narrative cinema. He can’t – and simply won’t – tell a straightforward story, instead cobbling together a series of elliptical instances, where characters fill space, stare into the far distance and mutter dialogue with little development or dimension.
Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams are wooden and distant, and there’s barely an attempt to build an emotional connection with their journey – which is unfortunate, considering the plot’s parallels with Bonnie & Clyde, or Malick’s earlier couple-on-the-run film, Badlands.
Linda Manz’s cocky kid is the only character with any spark, and that is restricted to her narration, as her relationship with her brother is, in the main picture, out of frame. In the voice over, she spits colloquial life lessons and spins tales in a broad, streetwise accent (“Nobody’s perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”).
But as the scene fades on our protagonists, it’s hard to decide whether the non-specific nature of the story is part of Malick’s thesis – that personal stories are subject to the natural pantheon, and the onslaught of clanging, dirty industry seen in the violent scenes of urban factories – or that ending on a semi-colon, or yet another ellipsis in a narrative full of them, is the mark of an inept storyteller.
Malick remains a tricky filmmaker to approach. The reception of Tree Of Life has been, at best, complicated. Popular critical opinion may slide towards the positive, but key voices have cried foul. It’s amusing to see that such divisions of opinion plagued the director even during his younger days. Indeed, foreshadowing Tree Of Life’s Palme d’Or win, Malick was presented with the Best Director award at Cannes in 1979, despite strong competition from Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum), Werner Herzog (Woyzeck), Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiade) and Francis Ford Coppola (a work-in-progress Apocalypse Now).
Reviews, however, were divided. Time’s film critic Frank Rich was swept up by the film’s imagery, writing, “There is enough beauty here for a dozen movies; yet the total effect is far from pretty. Slowly but surely the sharp images carve away at the audience’s guts”. He saw Malick’s work as “A bleak and unstinting attack on America’s materialistic culture… expressed in the elegiac terms of a fable”.
The hatchet jobs are infinitely more entertaining. At the New York Times, Harold C Schonberg condemns the photography as “self-conscious”, the plot as “conventional”, and full of “all kinds of fancy… cineaste techniques”, and the film itself as “intolerably artsy [and] artificial”. But it’s the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael who sticks the knife in deepest, writing:
“What is unspoken in this picture weighs heavily on us, but we’re not quite sure what it is. The film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it.”
Ouch. If anything, Malick’s work, from Days Of Heaven to Tree Of Life, inspires extreme reactions, and viewers are as encouraged to be held in awe by the director’s vision, as they are driven to slice through his air of pompous indulgence. That a filmmaker whose oeuvre still only consists of five feature films is treated with such reverence merely emboldens both camps.
Indeed, this conflict has sat at the heart of Malick’s work since the beginning, when Vincent Canby, reviewing Badlands in 1973, noted, “One may legitimately debate the validity of Malick’s vision, but not, I think, his immense talent”. I beg to differ: I think every aspect of Malick’s craft is up for debate.
Days Of Heaven is, therefore, a fascinating New Hollywood footnote. Lacking the movie brat mixture of pop thrills and film school smarts, its arch aestheticism is dazzling, yet dreary. The luscious restoration makes this a must-see at the cinema, especially for those piqued by Tree Of Life – just don’t expect a timeless, crowd-pleasing classic.
Days Of Heaven opens at the BFI today, and will screen until 30th September.