I was interested in the work of Terrence Malick after seeing Tree of Life. As I started watching his much earlier film Days of Heaven, I was at first reminded of Ron Howard’s Far and Away: young lovers brought together and separated by the the trials of pioneer life in an earlier American era, set against the gorgeous backdrops of that unsullied wilderness.
But where Howard’s movie was a fun bit of pop celluloid, Malick’s is art.
The style is wholly ambitious. Not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey in this sense, he uses dialogue sparsely, and constructs a deceptively simple plot. Much of the film’s meaning is communicated symbolically through the physical environment on which the story is imposed.
Days of Heaven begins in fire: the furnaces of a factory and the violence that attends them. After this prologue, we enter the paradise promised in the title; indeed, the story’s central act is truly a season of heaven on earth, one of those times in life where everything is perfect and you just lose yourself in the rapture of it all.
But, inevitably, there is a fall from grace. Shown in scenes of a plague of locusts (literally!) and then a return to fire, this fable goes from paradise to paradise lost. More violence, and a coda where we go from the beautiful gardens of the story’s main plot back to the artificial coldness of the city. The resolution leaves us likewise cold, lamenting grace lost through human foolishness.
Obviously I see some heavy Biblical archetypes here, but it’s hard not to. The resonance of Malick’s fable here is skillfully elicited, but not subtly so. The contrasts in the film’s macro elements are a delight to see juxtaposed.
And, of course, if nothing else, this is a film of amazing visual splendor. Malick filmed it almost entirely at dawn and dusk, bathing his landscapes in light that would have made the Impressionists swoon. It’s a miraculous film, about miracles bestowed and thrown away.