A phenomenal film, partly for its charming cast and tragic story, but mostly for the absolutely stunning visuals. It's an experience, worth embarking on twice, and it's also one damn pretty picture.
Terrence Malick is possibly the most interesting filmmaker working today. His first picture was Badlands in 1973, which garnered him critical acclaim in America and internationally. It took him five more years - until 1978 - to finish his second film, Days Of Heaven. After that, he moved to France, and stopped making films for twenty years. In 1998 he came out with The Thin Red Line, again to wide acclaim. Since then he has made The New World (2005), The Tree Of Life (2011), and To The Wonder (as yet unreleased).
What's fascinating about him is that despite garnering such critical and commericial success - and being known even by artsy European directors as a great director - there's reletively little known about him. He doesn't seem to do public interviews, or offer comment on puzzling aspects of his films. He just makes them, and sets them loose upon the world.
Ok, if you haven't seen a Terrence Malick film (or if you have and it just flew over your head), it helps to know that he has a background in philosophy. Specifically, he translated the work of Martin Heidegger, but that's neither here nor there. What's important is how this influences his films.
So we come to Days Of Heaven. Set in the 1910s, in the Texas pan-handle (that is, farming country), the film basically consists of a love triangle between Bill and Abbey and the farmer who hires them. While on the run from Chicago to a farm to work, Bill has his girlfriend pose as his sister. When the farmer takes a liking to Abbey, Bill encourages her to get closer to him, knowing that the farmer has a terminal illness and won't live much longer. As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of comedic situations, and hilarity ensues.
I kid, of course. The film is almost totally serious but not, as its tragic plotline might suggest, pessimistic or 'sad'. Malick has such an eye for natural beauty, and captures mesmerising scenes of the vast open plains, industrial landscapes, animals, plants people... everything is just so beautiful. It's probably the most criticized aspect of the film: why did he make it so darn pretty?
Bills real sister, Linda, narrates the film in fragments, often going on random tangents and talking about anything from a patch of scenery, to the end of the world (her performance, by the way, is marvellous). Continuity is not strict as it is in most films. The farmer rides out on horseback at night, and arrives to talk to Bill sometime during daylight. It doesn't matter, the film is not about details, or a meticulous storyline, it's about poetry.
It's a lyrical film, one that deals with human tragedy and passions reflected on an epic scale by the environment. The sun burns orange over the dusty plains as the little people frolick in the fields. The train moves accross the screen puffing little wisps of smoke into the vast blue sky above. Insects are shot in extreme close-up, their spindly legs and figiting mandibles dig into everything they touch.
And at the centre of it all is Malick, the ultimate auteur, formulating every unconventional cut, every breathtaking setpiece to create a master work of arresting beauty, reflective quiet, and phenomenal power.
You will probably watch this film and say 'eh, it's ok'
But trust me, this is one of those rare films that gets better with every viewing.
And holy smokes, it is pretty.