[This brief review was written as a summary for the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films List.]
Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s 1978 story of adultery on the Texas Panhandle, is set just before World War 1, but it resounds with echoes of Old Testament drama.
In it, blast-furnace worker Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with his foreman, ten goes on the run with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda. They settle as field workers for a rich farmer (Sam Shephard), who eventually falls for the irresistibly beautiful Abby.
Bill sees this as an opportunity to get rich not-so-quick. And his plot is the first step toward violence, which blazes up in a conflagration that may be the greatest inferno ever filmed.
Captured indelibly by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Malick’s film has a visual syntax so eloquent and graceful — its fields of gold cause its quiet characters to stand out like mythic figures — it would play powerfully as a silent film. (Shots of a hand extended to brush across the wheat fields have inspired numerous imitators, including Gladiator’s Ridley Scott.)
But the poetic narration by young Linda is endearing, and it keeps the goings-on from becoming too ponderous.
After making this meditative masterpiece, Malick abandoned filmmaking for thirty years, only to return with greater ambition, and similarly spellbinding cinema. Recently, The Criterion Collection released a pristine, beautiful restoration of Days of Heaven on Blu-ray and DVD. That is now the best way to experience the film, especially if you can see it on a large screen.