You can feel Terrence Malick drifting away in this follow-up to Badlands, his acclaimed debut. Narrative begins to tack a back seat to imagery and specificity is shunned in favor of vagueness. It’s an early sign of a unique sensibility devolving into mannerisms.
Despite its amorphousness, Days of Heaven is built upon a simple, elemental plot: After accidentally killing his foreman in Chicago, a factory worker (Richard Gere) flees with his girlfriend and kid sister to a Texas farm. When the landowner (Sam Shepard) turns gravely ill, the couple connives so that she will marry the landowner and inherit his wealth.
Malick and cinematographer Nestor Almendros give this narrative an epic treatment. Conversations take place in vast fields as a ripe sun throbs in the background. Workers toil amidst a palette of deep golden browns in what amounts to an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life. The landowner’s mansion sits amidst the low hills as if it were the last edifice on earth.
All of this visual bigness keeps the story from feeling human, however. I suppose that’s the job of the actors, but unfortunately Days of Heaven is woefully miscast. Gere is a petulant dandy, not a volatile laborer, and Shepard – the fulcrum for the action – seems dazed. Meanwhile, Brooke Adams, as the woman between the two men, has little presence.
Then there is Linda Manz as the little sister and inexplicable narrator. Given an undecipherable accent (unless that was her real voice), Manz’s character randomly drops in with observations that are at turns naively childlike and pointedly omniscient. She’s perhaps the most prominent voiceover misstep in a directorial career that has been littered with them.
That said, Days of Heaven lingers in the mind as a haunting, grand tragedy, one founded on potent visuals and Biblical allusions. Consider the sequence detailing a locust attack and the ensuing field fire meant to vanquish the devouring creatures; it’s downright apocalyptic. With such bursts, you can understand why Malick was hailed as a new cinematic visionary, even if Days of Heaven also hints at the meandering that was to come.