Days of Heaven (1978)

Written by Mike Lyon on March 3rd, 2008

It seems difficult to write something new and exciting about a cinematic masterpiece that’s been studied and analyzed for thirty years, so you’ll excuse me if I abandon profundity in favor of enthusiasm. Days of Heaven is of course the second of Terrence Malick’s four film communiqués to the outside world, a beautiful stream-of-consciousness poem that many (myself included) consider his finest. The story may revolve around a love triangle between two farmhands and the farm’s wealthy owner, but I’d like to write about another important character: the land itself.

The farmhands may be caretakers of the land, but their attachment to and reliance on it is absolute; working, but also praying, reveling, sleeping. Time passes in erratic bursts, sounds moving in and out of the foreground, jockeying for position with Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score. Each painstaking edit is a reminder of the monolithic presence of nature and the tenuousness of man’s existence within it. Nature is overpowering, and not to be fucked with. Fuck not with the towering canyons or swaying fields of grain dwarfing humanity, nor with the multitudes of animals who tolerate the passing actions of man.

I tried to keep a tally of the staggering number of animals onscreen, from the first majestic appearance of the buffalo to the otherworldly swarm of locusts that indifferently destroys the farm’s fragile equilibrium. Otters, pheasants, horses, rabbits, frogs, deer, grasshoppers, ducks, wolves, fish, peacocks, seagulls, antelope, cranes, sheep – a never-ending parade of the voiceless who nevertheless form a phalanx of central characters.

And while the land is immutable, the owner’s house is always a distant and flimsy icon, a grim beacon of interiority amongst a people freed by their communion with the earth. It isn’t until halfway through the film that we see the first real interior shot, the human space that locks out the wild and shits on the rhythm of life and makes people suspicious, devious, murderous. Here the illusion of tamed nature is briefly perpetuated, nature viewed through milky glass or glimpsed in a picture book.

But the deception can’t last. Seeds sprout, fires cut a swath of destruction and renewal, a colossal forest crawls towards the sky. But for all its focus on natural law, I think Days of Heaven is still a profoundly human story, and one that resonates precisely because it operates within a humbling context: the entirety of existence.

[rating: 9]

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