Days Of Heaven has such a purity to it that it becomes difficult to write about. It is one of the handful of works that truly deserve to be called pure cinema. Owing nothing to any art but its own. All the usual criteria that you use to talk about film just fall away. It seems more than a little futile to try and capture Days Of Heaven with words, so if the reviews a bit disjointed please forgive me (“Well how could we tell?” No comments form the peanut gallery.)
Days Of Heaven is so deceptively simplistic that it could have played on the back half of a double bill with Murnau’s Sunrise without anyone batting an eye. It’s story so Biblical it feels as though it has been with us forever. It’s beauty so elemental that at times it doesn’t even seem real.
In a way the twenty years of lost time that Malick gave us in between Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line makes sense. Of course he didn’t make any other films. What other films could be made? Days Of Heaven feels complete in a way that very few movies do. This is not a film that begs for a follow up.
Telling the story of a Man whose girlfriend marries a dying land baron (Lets marvel at that for a second. I said the narrative is Biblical which it is. But it’s about a half step from a Harlequin romance as well. In other hands, one shudders to think.), the events told by his sister in a dazed half interested narration. Heaven is a film that actually captures the dueling vividness and gauzyness of memory. The way the things that slip away often seem the wrong things and what lodges in your mind is often inexplicable. At one moment the little sister (played by Linda Manz in a truly unforgettable performance) stops the narrative and apropos to nothing goes on a monologue about how she became convinced she was being haunted by the ghost of a one legged man named Black Jack (whom we’ve never met). The movie continues serenely on, patiently waiting for her to get back on track. It would be impossible to imagine in another movie without seeming comic and to a certain extent it is, but the crucial thing is that it doesn’t break the spell that Malick has cast. We’re floating down the currents of her memory and we go down whatever strange tributaries Manz takes us, serenely convinced we will reach the river again.
The other actors do well as well, Richard Gere, Brooke Adams (looking uncannily like Karen Allen) and particularly Sam Shepard, as a kind man who hits his breaking point with scary conviction. The fact that these people remain people, are not dwarfed by the images they cohabitate the frame with is just as astounding as any of the images.
Days Of Heaven is after all, a film about the rhythm’s of life. Which may dwarf man but never obliterated. I’ve often wondered if our purpose isn’t merely to give things a sense of scale. If that is the case Days Of Heaven performs its job admirably. There are very few films you can say this about. But Days Of Heaven is perfect.