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The Early Films of Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven

Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K

Pat King completes his look at the early work of Terrence Malick with this exploration of Days of Heaven.

This is the second, and last, article on the early films of Terrence Malick.  Why only two?  Because from 1978, when Days of Heaven was released, to 1998, when The Thin Red Line came out, he didn’t direct any movies.  No one knows the exact reason.  The most likely explanation, as outlined in Peter Biskind’s Vanity Fair article, “The Runaway Genius” is that he was working, though the projects never came to fruition.  The reasons don’t really matter much, though.  If Malick had stopped making movies completely, he would still have produced two masterpieces and the world would have riches enough.

Days of Heaven takes place sometime in the 1910’s.  It stars Richard Gere in his first major role.  He plays Bill, a Chicago factory worker who’s forced to leave the city after he kills his mill foreman.  Along with his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), and his much younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz), Bill hitches a ride atop a freight train to Texas.  They travel with a sea of hobos and migrant workers, all headed to a farm to work the harvest.  The owner of the farm, an unnamed man played by Sam Shepard, is a quiet sort who keeps his distance from his workers.

Read the first article in this series, which explores Malick’s Badlands.

To protect themselves from unneeded conflict, Bill and Abby keep their relationship a secret, instead pretending to be brother and sister.  The farmer falls hard for Abby when he watches her working the land.  She’s covered in muck and her hair is greasy but she has a stunning smile.

The farmer offers Abby and Bill work after the harvest is over.  They’re the only workers asked to stay.  It’s an obvious ploy to buy some extra time with Abby but Bill is fine with it.  Earlier, on a trip to steal some medicine, he overheard the farmer’s doctor telling him he only has a year to live.  Bill encourages the relationship, hoping that the two will marry and, after the farmer dies, Abby will inherit his money and property.  The trio would finally be released from their hardscrabble working-class lives.

The plot might sound a little like a pulp novel, but, in a Malick film, plot is almost the least important element.  It’s really just a device used to move the characters forward in time.  In fact, someone used to conventional Hollywood moviemaking might think that there’s nothing much going on.  The film takes its time to tell the story.  We get good looks at the characters, their hard, breaking bodies, their forlorn expressions, their rare moments of joy.  Bill, Abby, and Linda, a strange makeshift family, are faced with the terror of lives without a future.

The movie has an almost innocent, romantic quality about it.  It’s narrated by Bill’s little sister, Linda, a twelve or thirteen year old girl.  She’s seeing everything that happens through the prism of first experiences.  Though she’s tough and has probably seen and experienced things a child her age shouldn’t, she still enjoys running around and playing in the dirt.  She isn’t cynical.  Not yet, anyway.  Unlike the adults, she has dreams, a possible “future” she can look forward to.  “I’ve been thinking what to do with my future,” she says.  “I could be a mud doctor.  Checking out the earth.  Underneath.”  She still dreams, but we know she’s probably going to end up like Bill and Abby.  Childhood is a time for dreams, though.  And, for now, Linda has her dreams.

But what to do about Bill and Abby?  My first reaction, which I imagine might be pretty typical, was to sympathize with them.  After all, they’ve been shit on by capitalists for most of their lives.  Why not take advantage of a fortunate situation?  Besides, there’s nothing like murder involved in their plan.  The farmer has a natural expiration date.  But it’s never that simple, is it?  As we get to know the farmer, we realize that he’s actually a pretty decent guy.  We’re not told anything explicitly, but he probably inherited his farm and, with it, his wealth.  Hell, his entire life was probably passed down to him.  His choices were, in their way, just as limited as Bill and Abby’s.

Days of Heaven also explores the question of female freedom and male dominance.  I mean, Bill feels fine pimping Abby off to the farmer, justifying it by considering the hefty payday that will come when the farmer dies.  And the farmer wants to be with Abby even before he knows the first thing about her.  Eventually he comes to realize that he’s married to a stranger.  He’s struck blind with paranoia and rage when he catches Bill and Abby embracing and kissing each other, acting much more intimate than is appropriate for a brother and sister.  And, with this, we understand that his obsession with Abby is one of ownership and possession.  At what point do Abby’s feelings begin to matter?  Bill realizes only too late that he made a mistake and a little of his humanity is redeemed.

I have to mention the excellent cinematography.  It’s impressionistic, at times it feels almost like a Monet painting come to life.  The camera chews the scenery, moving from a character to a stream or a plant, every shot carefully considered. The idea is that nature is indifferent to man and will just as soon kill him as sustain his life.  At the end of the film, a literal plague of locusts makes plain the common smallness of man, rich or poor, as it threatens to destroy the crop and, with it, everyone’s livelihood.

By the last scene in the movie, the family is separated.  We are left following Linda and a boarding-school girlfriend as they walk down a pair of train tracks and disappear into the woods.  What does it mean, these two young women disappearing from our view?  What is this thing called distance?  And why is youth so quick to leave our sightline?