The eyes of Texas: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven

In our Spring 1979 issue, Richard Combs praised the “audacious gamble” of Malick’s poetic second feature.

Updated: 2 February 2024

By Richard Combs

Days of Heaven (1978)
Sight and Sound

To the extent that a director’s second film often proves a greater stumbling block than his first (especially if the latter has been any kind of critical or commercial success), then Days of Heaven must be accounted a particularly audacious gamble. It is now some six years since Terrence Malick made Badlands, one of the most remarkable directorial debuts in American cinema, loosely based on the real-life killing spree of two teenagers across the Dakota badlands in the late 50s, but turned by Malick into a complex reappraisal of the social and mythical terms of the cinema’s many romantic odysseys since then. In Days of Heaven, only his second film, he has risked the charge of repetition by reshuffling many of the elements of Badlands: hapless youngsters on the run; a picaresque narrative wrapped in a blandly distanced commentary; an ‘ecstatic’ flow of imagery which begs our sense of wonder. Even more dangerously, he has increased the distance between the levels of enchantment and the levels of meaning. Visually, Days of Heaven seems to have set out to be more seductive than Badlands, while in terms of theme, character and even plot, it is more diffuse, dispersed and secretive.

In a collage of highly coloured and almost wordless scenes, Malick (and cameramen Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) have conjured, pointillist-fashion, a beguiling landscape, both harsh and magical: the huge wheat-growing area of the Texas Panhandle, to which, in 1916, a pair of young lovers, Abby (Brooke Adams) and Bill (Richard Gere), and the latter’s young sister Linda (Linda Manz), are driven from the urban squalor of the North. But Malick is as dramatically spare as he is visually ornate. Days of Heaven develops as a relatively simple tale of triangular passions – Abby becomes involved with a wealthy young farmer (playwright Sam Shepard), in an initially mercenary scheme which turns into a romantic complication. But the human content of the story seems to be buried somewhere beneath its telling, while its manifestations (the wheat harvest, a flying circus, a locust plague, a fire) are spectacularly more than satisfying.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Despite teasing hints that what we are watching might be a Greek tragedy, an allegory of primal passion, or a Tom Sawyerish adventure, Malick remains insistent that the inner life of his people is unknowable, that they will only be partially understood in any of these modes. Somewhere in the gap between character and action, in the silence that surrounds motive and feeling, Malick finds the tension that drives and ‘explains’ his characters. In describing the relation between the off-screen commentator of Badlands and what we see of herself and her teen lover on screen, he has commented on ‘…Holly’s mis-estimation of her audience, of what they will be interested in or ready to believe… When they’re crossing the badlands, instead of telling us what’s going on between Kit and herself… she describes what they ate and what it tasted like, as though we might be planning a similar trip…’ (Sight and Sound, Spring 1975)

Such a lack functions ironically in Badlands, but similar absences – or rather silences, such as Malick imposes at crucial dramatic points – work more mysteriously in Days of Heaven. The narration here is even more tangential to what one might take as the main events, and the fact that it is provided not by one of the central lovers but by a child emphasises that we are to be allowed little privileged information. What Malick has done, however, is much more radical than supplying a child’s-eye-view of some strange adult drama. His film is split between the much that we see and the little that we know, and what we share is not so much the perspective of Linda, our informant, as her piecemeal acquisition of knowledge and experience.

Malick’s narrative method, in fact, has more to do with this selective accretion of detail than with telling a story or developing a set of characters. It is a method which has a peculiarly literary flavour, not surprising perhaps given his invocation of What Maisie Knew as a model for Linda’s commentary, but certainly a unique way of containing the visual superabundance of the film. In another sense, Malick may not be so far from the cinema: the significant ‘silences’ of Days of Heaven suggest a relation, in terms of subject and structure, to the movies of (roughly) its own era as strong as the interplay of 50s teen-movie mythology in Badlands. In making what he has referred to as almost a silent film, Malick has found an apt context for his own dramatic processes and a strikingly original way of incorporating his sense of cinema – although in the category of more conventional hommage, one must include a lonely Victorian farmhouse out of Giant, stranded in the midst of the Texas plain.

The gamble Malick has taken is that audiences will be safely transported over the silences and lacunae by the fairy-tale atmosphere – which, to judge by the reviews that have willingly succumbed to the visual enchantment, seems to have paid off. That the film also sets up other obstacles to audience involvement can be seen from even a cursory comparison with Badlands. Where the latter started from a powerful dramatic situation, and then took off into eccentric digressions, Days of Heaven begins with the digressions, and only after a while bothers to bind them into a kind of story. The opening scene, in fact, is the first instance of the quasi-silent, ‘suppressed’ narrative. In a Chicago steel foundry, Bill has an argument with the foreman, unheard above the roar of the furnaces, then knocks him down and flees. He leaves the city with Abby and Linda, sharing precarious passage atop some boxcars with other migrant labourers, to work for the summer on a Texas wheat farm. The next complication is audible but somewhat inexplicable: Linda tells how, presumably for reasons of propriety, Bill and Abby pretended to be brother and sister.

From the inexplicable, the plot proceeds to connections that are ineffable. During the summer that the three spend toiling in the fields around that incongruous Gothic citadel, Abby attracts the attention of the young proprietor of the farm. The source of the attraction, as Linda muses, was hard to determine: ‘Maybe it was the way the wind blew through her hair.’ But Bill, vaguely ambitious and increasingly discontented with the state of grinding poverty, encourages Abby to lead the farmer on, after he learns by accident that the latter is ill and not expected to live beyond a year. Abby and the farmer are married; Bill and Linda stay on after the other labourers have left, and move into the big house. Thus begins, for Linda at least, the days of heaven: ‘We were all living like kings, just nothing to do all day but lie around cracking jokes… I’m telling you, the rich got it all figured out.’ But Abby begins to fall in love with her husband, while his awed announcement – ‘You’ve made me come back to life’ – turns out to be literally true, as a year passes and the frustrated Bill finds himself no nearer his goal of appropriation. The farmer, in turn, begins to suspect, to his horror, that the supposed brother and sister are romantically involved.

Days of Heaven (1978)

‘Just when things were about to blow,’ in Linda’s phrase, Malick drops in an outrageous deus ex machina, a troupe of flying clowns, who proceed to entertain the household with all manner of theatrical skits – including a Charlie Chaplin film sequence. At the height of the revels, Malick stages a climactic revelation in explicit re-creation of silent cinema: captured in silhouette behind the billowing drapery of a gazebo, Bill and Abby are seen kissing by the farmer. Bill later leaves with the fliers, but returns – out of regret, remorse, a desire to see Abby once more or a last hope of retrieving her – with the next influx of harvest workers. The farmer sees them together and believes his worst fears confirmed – ironically, at the moment when he is least in danger of losing Abby.

The sequence of events that follows seems to spring from passions way beyond the laconic spectrum of the film’s characters, and from an artistic design parodically greater than the contours of its plot. First a plague of locusts descends – a sequence which Malick builds, with quiet ferocity, to proper biblical proportions – until a fire, accidentally started, sweeps across the wheat fields, destroying crop and parasite alike. In the aftermath, Bill is confronted by the farmer, whom he kills in self-defence. He, Abby and Linda then flee once more, enjoying a brief idyll as they travel downriver until the film, rather surprisingly but quite consistently, allows them to dwindle away to their separate ends.

Consistently, that is, because if anything explains the spaciousness and inconclusive-ness of Malick’s plotting it is his desire to have several narratives coexist. By comparison with the tight-fitting irony with which Holly’s voice-over relates to the action of Badlands, Days of Heaven seems to be made up of a number of discrete worlds, with its narrator simply one small voice who scarcely impinges on the adults around her. But as in the earlier film, the function of her comments is to measure distance: her matter-of-factness prevents audiences from identifying too readily with the characters; her sense of wonder prevents the latter from being swept away too easily by events. Her third voice, that of an interpreter – as when she describes Abby’s feelings during their flight from the farm: ‘She blamed it on herself. She didn’t care if she was happy or not. She just wanted to make up for what she had done’ – testifies to things we know or see nothing of at all, and so emphasises the partiality, the incompleteness of the plot as such.

Days of Heaven (1978)

In other instances, Linda’s awareness is itself clearly incomplete. Her expression of sympathy for the romantically doomed farmer – ‘I felt sorry for him, because he had nobody to stand up for him, to be by his side’ – doesn’t take into account the latter’s close attachment to his grizzled foreman (Robert Wilke). It is this relationship, the most briefly indicated in the film, which finally impels events toward tragedy. Out of his fierce, fatherly protectiveness, the old man prompts the farmer’s suspicions about what Abby and Bill are up to; after the farmer’s death, it is his aggrieved foreman who whips up the posse that tracks the runaways.

But where Badlands preserved a narrative line, and some thematic continuities – the interplay of guilt and innocence in its recklessly self-deluded ‘thrill’ killers – through all its digressions and competing ‘voices’, Days of Heaven seems intent only on filling out its ever-expanding, coolly elegiac mood. The phenomena it collects and frames, with loving attention to the particularities of light and colour, seem to be related only in terms of the learning process delightedly invoked by Linda when she talks about her relationship with the farmer – ‘He taught me about parts of the globe’ – or in terms of more mysterious and faintly foreboding associations (the huge tractors which work the farm recall the steel furnaces of the opening; the sparks that fly during a fireside celebration anticipate the devouring locusts).

That Malick manages to hold this eccentric, alchemical solution together is a testament to a sense of control and design that is clearly obeying its own laws even when it is defying those of conventional narrative. One suspects also that, in place of the local ironies of Badlands, he has arrived at a more overreaching perspective, as ambivalently compassionate and detached, in which the silences and absences of meaning in his characters’ lives stand for all those things which are above and beneath their gaze. In one small scene, as Bill and Abby slip away from the farmhouse one night to lie together in the fields, the film moves with a strange grace from abstract contemplation of the cloudscapes and heavens above them to a brief shot in which we see a glass they have carelessly discarded sinking through water to come to rest amid the flora and fauna of the riverbed

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Originally published: 29 August 2023