To hell with equivocation or beating around the bush: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is the greatest film ever made. And let the word film be emphasized, since Malick’s sophomore masterpiece earns this exalted designation from its position as a work of pure cinema, a concoction of sound and image so formally sumptuous and yet effortlessly poignant that, upon my first viewing as a high schooler, it completely shattered my previous preconceptions about the possibilities afforded by the art form. To an extent far greater than in 1973’s exceptional Badlands, what Malick does in Days of Heaven is convey virtually everything of import through visual and sonic means, his tale, often denigrated as sketchy, left purposely simple and slender so that it might be elevated to the realm of timeless archetype via plaintive aestheticism. Malick’s directorial gestures wholly meld with the story, as every dramatically tangential stare at the vast 1920 Texas panhandle landscape, like every montage set to Ennio Morricone’s unbearably melancholic score, carries in it the narrative’s mournful, tragic emotional essence. It is, ultimately, nothing more or less than the definitive proof of film’s status as an inherently sensory medium.
Take, for example, the way Malick subtly uses a cutaway to a whirling rooftop wind gauge to signal impending danger for his central love triangle, between field laborer Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend-posing-as-his-sister Abby (Brooke Adams), and the wealthy, dying wheat magnet known only as Farmer (Sam Shepard) whom Abby marries as part of Bill’s scheme to escape their indigent, migrant situation. Or his similar employment of a quick snapshot of stream water rolling over rocks to express the fleeting calm and peace felt by Bill and Abby during a clandestine nighttime rendezvous. And, also, his orchestration of Abby and Farmer’s wedding night, in which the figurative distance between them is suggested by their relation to the camera (she facing the lens, he with his back to it), and the tender precariousness of their arrangement is communicated by Malick’s subsequent shots of the mansion bedroom’s exterior (its stained-glass window entwined with Farmer’s preceding statement: “You’re like an angel”) and a delicate leaf covered in droplets of dew. These superficially nonchalant moments are ecstatically evocative, and often enhanced by the unavoidable impression that capturing such seemingly artless images must have required near-Herculean determination and patience.
Days of Heaven’s title is bibilical (a phrase taken from Deuteronomy 11:21) and so are the undercurrents of its plot, which charts Bill’s flight from a hellish Chicago factory—after, in an act of original sin, he semi-accidentally murdered his foreman—to the expansive plains of Texas, a paradise of endless land and sky that, by film’s conclusion, will itself be engulfed in a swarm of end-times locusts and roaring flames. Bill’s kid sister, Linda (the wonderfully strange, unique Linda Manz), narrates this saga with references to God and Satan, but if the tale is told from her perspective, it’s nonetheless an unreal, detached one, with Linda recounting events and anecdotes as if she had witnessed them from a remove, and been forced to imaginatively make up those portions from which she was denied firsthand access. The resultant atmosphere of simultaneous intimacy and disconnection is haunting, as well as harmoniously attuned to Malick’s portrait of man’s tense relationship with nature. Environment mirrors peoples’ condition even as it remains unconcerned about their plight, at once prone to reflect their sadness in a storm cloud or their swelling peril in the sound of galloping horses, and yet just as likely to aloofly stand apart from them, such as in myriad shots of faceless silhouettes set against the sunset horizon.
Lyrical sorrow springs forth from Days of Heaven’s paradoxical juxtaposition of poor, filthy, hungry humans with the majestically beautiful countryside, which in turn is given iconographic majesty by Néstor Almendros’s Oscar-winning cinematography. Drenched in “magic hour” twilight (and frequently filmed with only natural illumination), his compositions have a lustrous quality both earthy and ethereal, veiling the action in an otherworldly glow that’s nonetheless always rooted in the tangible feeling of its milieu. It is hard to think of a film more visually intoxicating, with Almendros’s work so painterly and thrumming with vibrant, roiling life—not to mention innately entwined with Morricone’s musical accompaniment, equally elegiac and alive—that it’s difficult to fully appreciate it on first glance. This also holds true with regard to Malick’s deftly suggestive editing. Just as the director is fond of transiently turning attention away from character-driven goings-on to glimpse a herd of buffalo or wheat fields swaying in the breeze, he frequently begins scenes midway through a tracking shot and ends them (sometimes with a cut to black, other times with a dissolve) before it’s finished. The effect, of floating in and out of events like a visiting specter, is dreamlike.
Malick’s post-production creativity is likewise responsible for the film’s resonant emotional depth. Detractors’ most familiar criticism—that everything is insufficiently dramatized—is in a certain, limited sense valid. However, Malick’s story and characters are thinly conceived precisely because his intention is to impart sentiments and tensions through nonverbal channels. This is never clearer than with his handling of the cast’s performances, which are habitually reduced by the director’s edits to ephemeral motions and unheard statements. This isn’t to say that the trio of Gere, Adams, and Shepard are utilized merely for their own physical beauty. Rather, it’s simply to contend that our ability to recognize, and empathize with, their characters’ passions is due largely to Malick’s decision to strip scenes down to their bare, poignant essentials: Bill’s wounded look upon realizing that Abby has fallen in love with Farmer; Farmer’s taut visage upon witnessing a romantic exchange between Bill and Abby; and Farmer’s eyes, full of desperation for love and companionship, as well as a desire for self-deception, when he asks his foreman/surrogate father (Robert J. Wilke), who’s suspicious of Bill and Abby’s motives, to leave the homestead.
As with Badlands and The New World (and, to some degree, The Thin Red Line), Days of Heaven fundamentally involves a transformative journey. Abby is forever reconfigured by her experience as the object of both wild Bill and safe Farmer’s affections, and Malick’s recurring motifs of movement—train rides, boat trips, wagon trains, flowing water, rolling clouds, cattle processions, and Linda’s convivial strolls with an older friend (Jackie Shultis)—speaks to a prevailing notion of impermanence. More than the luxury that Farmer’s wealth affords, it is stasis that brings Bill, Abby, and Linda their most joy during the halcyon middle section. And similarly, a sense of patience, of allowing things to unfold without hurry or any nagging requirement that straightforward narrative conventions be addressed, eventually helps bestow the film with its languorous poeticism. That cinema has the potential to overwhelm one’s senses like no other art continues, 15-odd years and thousands of movies after my first introduction to Malick’s oeuvre, to inspire this cinephile. And the fact that the director wholeheartedly fulfills that potential with this, his rapturous pièce de résistance, helps explain why it took 20 years to complete his follow-up: It’s tough to top something this close to perfection.