Dir. Terrence Malick. Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard
The single most annoying artistic choice among mainstream directors in the past decade or so has got to be the orange and blue color contrast that is just everywhere, in movies as diverse as Transformers and, as the author of that link brilliantly points out, Hot Tub Time Machine. In the past couple of years it has even seeped into good pictures by strong directors. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are both guilty of hyper-colorized orange and teal setups; even when they’re done mindfully, as Jenkins does, it’s such a visual cliche that it can hardly be effective. In short, thank God for Terrence Malick, who showed me something I’d never seen before in Days of Heaven: a purple and gold contrast. Even though the enormous farm in Days of Heaven is missing anything greater than a hillock, it’s a distinctly American combination that Malick has chosen for that shot, a visual corollary matching “For amber waves of grain/For purple mountains’ majesty/Above the fruited plain.” Just as Michael Powell throws red and green at each other to effect in Peeping Tom, Malick uses his complementary colors as an emotional cue. In Peeping Tom, complementary colors are disconcerting; in Days of Heaven, they are frequently moving, sometimes even sublime.
American art, never quite able to escape the profoundly religious influences on our shared history, often see in the great expanses of land something akin to Eden or Canaan, precious for their abundance and the security of believing they can be tamed. Gone with the Wind, in its first few minutes after the credits, exclaims that “Land is the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for! Because it’s the only thing that lasts!” The Grapes of Wrath sees in the plentiful lands of California a latter-day land of milk and honey, but without the god who can deliver such a well-defended territory to the poor wanderers. Days of Heaven posits that when the American dirt has much scope and savor as the sands of Palestine and Egypt, then the old stories will resurface. Bill (Gere) kills a man in Chicago one day and is forced to pack up his pre-teen sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend, Abby (Adams) and run off as far as he can; they land at a great wheat farm in Texas about harvesting time. For reasons that no one can quite discern – perhaps he wants to foil the narrative of who’s running where, though it would be a foolish dog to be thrown off that scent – Bill tells people that Abby is his sister. It is unsurprising that the Abimelech of the Texas Panhandle, a bachelor farmer with a terminal illness (Shepard), quickly falls for her.
Shepard’s farmer is no hero; he is the capitalist overlord. If you don’t work hard enough, Linda comments in a voiceover, you’re kicked out without a second thought. There’s always another person who wants to work in the job you’ve got. (It’s another parallel to The Grapes of Wrath, where that threat of dismissal hangs over everyone in the camps like Poe’s pendulum.) While his scores of workers toil in the fields, he sits on chairs and couches under parasols. Something about Abby catches his eye – her beauty, her perpetual frown, the way she runs awkwardly behind the thresher. He comes to speak to her. How did you get here? Where are you from? A rainbow of sunset colors bleeds together behind him as he comes to see this skinny girl with the heap of brown hair. These meetings occur more and more often. They happen in the way of most scenes in Days of Heaven: short and pointed. It’s one of my favorite elements of the movie. Malick doesn’t use many words to make scenes work, to mine directly to the feeling, focusing on each one long enough to get the point. Days of Heaven has an epic vision, but Malick is not George Stevens; he tells the story of Days of Heaven in half the time Stevens needs for Giant. He finds the most distinctive part of each person’s look and hones in on them, frequently finding in the characters a wanting, a fear, a disdain, an uncertainty.
Malick uses Gere’s eyes and nose, Shepard’s teeth and posture, the line in Manz’s forehead, the downturned edges of Adams’ mouth. Everyone has shining moments somewhere in the movie; in a scene that reminded me of “Love is Strange” in Badlands and the soulless shuffle that Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen do, Manz does a solid little jig on a wooden board with a much older black hand. She grimaces the whole way through while he seems tickled by the fact that this little girl has joined his dance; she leaves. It’s both funny and a key scene for Linda, whose cryptic observations form the narration for the movie and whose tough features seem better suited to Texas than Adams’ frailty or Gere’s prettiness. But it’s Shepard, out of the bunch, who is far and away the most hypnotic. Malick occasionally places the camera underneath him as he sternly surveys his territory. He picks at the grain, tosses the berry in his mouth, chews, nods. His hair seems to be entirely outside his control, flipping every which way. There is an immense hunger in his eyes, accentuated by the impossible leanness of his frame. His rooms indoors are the same kind of brownish-yellow color as the massive fields outside, only dimmer and hazier. (The flames that swallow his land later in the movie is set in those same insidious tones and strengthened by nighttime and fire.) He’s no saint, but there’s a man in there somewhere.
Bill is quick to note the presence of that man in his erstwhile boss. Upon discovering that the farmer might expire in a year, a wanderer senses his chance. Marry the farmer, he says, though never in so few words, and when he dies we’ll take the lot. Abby is disenchanted by the idea; she voices her worries. After some time, she does what Bill asks anyway in a quiet ceremony in a surprisingly verdant setting. The film begins to accelerate time again; her “brother” and “sister” stay on, helping out in better jobs. Abby and Bill still can’t keep their hands off each other. A Sopwith Camel and a Fokker Dr.I land (a little incredulously, from my point of view), drop off the performers piloting them, and leave again with a recently embittered Bill, whose marriage plot has ended with Abby coming to feel for the still-living farmer. Time swirls in these scenes, not unlike the way that the little wooden dogfighters take off and wind around the enormous house (whose design is Wyeth but whose impact is Hopper) before leaving sight entirely. Bill is a man with bad ideas and the physical strength to work his way out of them, a Houdini without safety nets. He rubs his watery hands over Abby’s bare calves while they wade in the water. They tumble a little in the barn. All of it inspires suspicion; he stares up wordlessly at the lit window in the house that he has never quite been made to feel at home in. His return is inevitable and welcomed by his sister and his “sister,” but we aren’t given much reason to think that either one of them needs him anymore. Abby and Linda seem perfectly content with one another (though Linda is demonstrably upset when Bill leaves and demonstrably pleased when he returns). Abby in particular seems to have taken to the comfortable life that Bill thought he would be able to partake of with her when he suggested that she marry the farmer.
The murder of the farmer is the end of the movie, even if the film runs on its own fumes for another twenty minutes or so. In truth, the film reaches its climactic moments too soon, well before all of the picture is giftwrapped. A plague of locusts descends on the farm; in the mad, losing battle to pour locust after locust onto bonfires, the farmer swings his lantern at Bill and ignites everything. “Crazy!” Bill shouts at him, but nothing about Hell is ever depicted as crazy in the Bible. For the farmer, all has been illuminated; his darkness is burnt away by the fire, and being fooled when he should have known better for more than a year is at least as self-destructive as igniting an already spoiled harvest. It’s a scene which almost has too much action for the rest of the movie to cope with – so much of Days of Heaven, despite the frequent scenes of farm work, could easily be read as laconic – but it’s probably the ten minutes or so which exemplify the film. Allusion and symbolism are laid on top of stunning visuals, and what emotion there is to be read in the people is there in the land and the fire and the great house as much as it is in their words and bodies.