All Things Shining, Pt 2

The films of Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted May 11, 2011
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Terrence Malick's second movie, Days of Heaven, marks an evolutionary leap forward for the style he forged in 1973's Badlands. On paper, the central plot sounds like the greatest novel James M. Cain never wrote. Bill (Richard Gere), a hot-tempered young steel mill worker from Chicago, accidentally kills his supervisor during an argument, then flees with his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and his kid sister Linda (Linda Manz), eventually ending up in the wheat fields of the Texas panhandle during harvest time. The trio toil on land owned by a young man known only as the Farmer (Sam Shepard), and when Bill realizes that he's taken a fancy to Abby, and that he is (supposedly) terminally ill, he hatches a plot to have her marry him so that they can live in luxury after he dies.

But where Badlands indulged in flights of lyrical fancy, its story and characters were rooted in hard reality, Heaven, too, is anchored in the physical reality of everyday existence, particularly the rituals of work and play and the cycles of the harvest (and life and death); the photography (by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) alternates rough handheld shots, Old Hollywood crane shots, and locked-down masters that treat the outlines of trees, buildings and people as depth markers, drawing the eye through space. It's amped-up naturalism, as sumptuous as can be without tipping into abstraction or calendar-art slickness. And yet everything else about the movie pushes against documentary values. Malick's screenplay bluntly invokes the Book of Genesis, allying itself with poetry and fables and dreams, and diving into a sort of collective American unconscious—the hive-mind of humanity, flora, fauna, and the elements that Ralph Waldo Emerson called The Oversoul. In montage sequences, the editing is so terse and lucid that the images seem to cascade into each other. And the contrapuntal narration—by 12-year old Linda, the hero's street-tough yet oddly innocent kid sister, who strives to make sense of epic events even though she lacks the maturity to do so—is even more confounding than Sissy Spacek's not-all-there narration of Badlands.

Chapter 2 of "All Things Shining: The Films of Terrence Malick" focuses exclusively on Days of Heaven. To view Chapter 1, Badlands, click here. Future installments will examine The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005). The series is produced in conjunction with the Museum of Moving Image's Terrence Malick film series, which runs May 13-15. 

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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door