Days of Heaven is an immense, impressive picture. Only Terrence Malick’s second full-length, the plot would seem to lend itself to the easy naturalism of his debut, Badlands. A young woman named Abby (Brooke Adams), her boyfriend Bill (Richard Gere) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) travel to a Texan farm to work on the harvest, escaping an act of violence. Bill and Abby pretend to be siblings; the reason for this is never fully explained, though Linda’s narration provides some insight: “My brother didn’t want nobody to know. You know how people are. Once you tell ‘em something, they start talkin’.” At Bill’s behest, Abby romances and marries the wealthy, dying owner of the farm (Sam Shepard, credited only as “The Farmer”), and complications ensue.
Like Badlands, it’s a story of poverty, violence and devotion in a pastoral American setting. But where Malick’s camera was another person along on the ride with Kit and Holly, here he adopts a style deservedly described as Malickian. His point-of-view is found somewhere in the intersection between infancy and divinity. The camera roves away from Abby, Bill and Linda to gaze upon the majesty of man’s reformation of nature, enormous wheatfields stretching to eternity, countless workers toiling amidst the auburn dust. It’s a god’s-eye perspective from an inquisitive god, one not tethered to the travails of the film’s protagonists. The soaring point of view lends a wistful verisimilitude to Days of Heaven; as the camera sweeps over an aged, splintered-wood train crawling with prospective farmhands, you get the sense that you’ve truly been transported back to the early twentieth century.
The film is filled with countless gorgeous shots; stills that could fill an art gallery, demonstrating a command of colour, framing and sheer wonder. An early shot of a train (see above) traversing a seemingly bottomless, impossibly blue chasm is breathtaking, as are many of the scenes on the farm (famously, Days of Heaven was almost entirely shot during the “magic hour”). But there’s a sense of childish curiosity amongst the sweeping cinematography, which isn’t limited to expansive panoramas. Malick has a fond fascination for nature, interspersing wide rural beauty with glimpses of the nature this farm has subsumed; a bird taking flight or horses tromping through light snow. The film’s elliptical, wandering rhythms are tied together with Linda’s narration – a decidedly unconventional narrative, sharing stories and thoughts often only peripherally related to the events onscreen (apparently much of it was improvised by the young actress).
Like all of Malick’s subsequent work, the effect is divisive. The roaming, gorgeous cinematography regularly sacrifices the particulars of the story. Dialogue is often inaudible or avoided altogether. Those who attend the movies wanting to be told a story are often disappointed or frustrated by a filmmaking style that’s more interested in the beauty of nature than clear storytelling. There is a story to be told, of course; it’s simply that Malick’s attention is primarily directed towards the feel of the environment and the margins of the storyline rather than exactly what’s happening between Abby and The Farmer. Richard Gere was the first – but not the last – actor to complain that the final cut of the film didn’t match the “more richly verbal movie, with much more high emotions” that he believed he was making. There’s a detailed, specific story here – it’s just that much of it is left implied in the final cut.
It’s a mistake, however, to characterise Malick as a poet rather than a storyteller, as his detractors tend to. I don’t believe that Days of Heaven is a perfect film – there’s some clumsy editing early in the film and Brooke Adams’ performance has always felt stilted to me – but it is a powerful example of how good storytelling doesn’t have to rely on dialogue or exposition. The best evidence of the film’s strength of storytelling is found late in the film, when the farm is overrun by locusts. The plague is a potent metaphor for the love triangle’s mounting doubt and distrust; Abby has developed feelings for The Farmer, while Bill’s frustration grows at the man’s prevailing health – an overheard conversation with a doctor had led him to believe that The Farmer had only months to live (“He’s got one foot on a banana peel and the other on a rollerskate.”)
The locust sequence (included in its entirety above) begins simply, with Linda noticing a pair of the insects on a cabbage as she prepares a meal. The locusts mount in number as the insecurities of the protagonists mount – their insidious ubiquity is established quickly and their trademark buzz rises on the soundtrack, joined shortly thereafter by the whine of an alarm as farm workers fight to reclaim the crops.
To emphasise that this invasion represents the culmination of Abby and Bill’s lies, the camera lingers briefly on both Abby and The Farmer, with twin expressions of anxious trepidation.
Soon the workers – which once included Abby and Bill in their number – are as widespread as the locusts they hunt; the screen fills with people as shrill violins join the twin whine of the alarm and locusts.
There’s a sense of resigned hopelessness that pervades the effort to eradicate the locusts. Night encroaches, consuming the near-perpetual twilight that’s defined the tone of the film. The wheatfields fill with smoke to dull the locusts, who are tossed into a bonfire by the dozens. The soundtrack reflects the torpor of the locusts by abandoning urgent shrillness in favour of an ominous atmosphere. This scene recalls the opening scene of the movie, where Bill shovels coal into a furnace before grievously injuring (and, likely, killing) his foreman.
Just as in this scene, the darkness and fire precedes an act of heated violence. Despite the locust’s slumber, their buzzing returns to the soundtrack as The Farmer confronts and attacks Bill with a lit torch. It’s no coincidence that the ignition source for the fire that ultimately consumes the property in a hellish conflagration comes from this confrontation; Abby’s and Bill’s deception form a tinderbox that only needs a spark to be engulfed in tragedy.
This entire sequence contains next to no dialogue, and the vast majority of it is spent on tight close-ups of locusts or wide landscape shots of the farm, either plagued or aflame. Because of the unmistakeable metaphors present in the scene and the resonance with the emotional reality of the film’s protagonists, only a few shots of these characters, distraught or infuriated or despairing, need be included for the story to be clear. Throughout the film, Malick has accumulated fuel for this fire; it is both overwhelming and inevitable when he, like The Farmer, finally lets it burn.