So maybe you were tricked into seeing The Tree of Life last year, and were disappointed to find it wasn’t the Pitt-Penn emotional tour-de-force promised by the posters. (Too many dinosaurs? Not enough? Discuss.) Maybe you sat there for all two and a half hours, waiting for something resembling plot or agency or any sense of momentum—something more than vignette and visual effervescence. Maybe you were disappointed by the experience, and confused by the reams and reams of adoration it received from oxygen-starved critics.
Give those guys a break. The Tree of Life wasn’t a completely stand-alone film, not for moviegoers familiar with director Terrence Malick’s body of work. Since debuting with 1973’s Badlands, Malick had been known as a singular purveyor of cinematic beauty and grandiloquent existential questioning, a mission statement that reached its ambitious apotheosis with The Tree of Life. But he started off making more conventionally narrative films, the last of which was 1978’s Days of Heaven, which he delivered before disappearing from Hollywood for twenty years.
That’s not to say that Days of Heaven is hustling and bustling with activity, though it might seem that way compared to the sprawling Tree. The plot is rather simple: Bill (a young Richard Gere, a dead ringer for Bruce Springsteen), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and sister Linda (Linda Manz) are pre-war workers who hit the road after Bill accidentally kills a foreman at the factory where he works (an event that takes place within the movie’s first five minutes, and is told almost wordlessly). With Bill and Abby pretending to be brother and sister to avoid gossip regarding their premarital living situation, they all relocate to a farm owned by a nameless businessman (Sam Shepard) and work in the field for little pay or comfort. When The Farmer, as he’s informally referred to, begins to fall in love with Abby, Bill hatches a scheme to fall into his wealth by way of marriage—a marriage with a timer, as The Farmer appears to be afflicted with a life-threatening disease. But it doesn’t quite go that way, and the film slowly builds to a meltdown of literal Biblical proportions.
Understandably, the plot takes second billing to the visuals. Watching Days of Heaven, you get the sense that this is why film is film, the medium at its strongest: beautiful image layered over beautiful image, nature captured in its alternately serene and furious states, and an environment that envelops its characters rather than taking direction from them. There’s a lost world here, presented as such from the very beginning when the credits are delivered over a montage of old photographs. Here, Malick establishes himself as the director most capable of appropriating nature for narrative’s sake, splicing imagery of flora and fauna in between the story’s quiet proceedings to give audiences a real feel for the fecundity of the country setting. Chronicling all of the movie’s astonishing shots would be too long for this column, but while you’re watching, just try to be aware of how incredible everything looks at all times.
Story-wise, there’s a consistent distance kept from the characters. Whenever we see Bill, Abby and The Farmer, their personalities are painted with broad strokes, rather than intimate detail. Part of this jibes with the movie’s interior logic: everything is narrated by Linda, and it’s only sensible that she wouldn’t be privy to the intimate inner space of her brother and his girlfriend. Coming from the outside, her observations are novelistic rather than explanatory, rendered with a sort of authorial grace that’s both blunt and insightful. Talking about Bill’s motivations for conning the Farmer, she says, “He was tired of living like the rest of them, nosing around like a pig in a gutter. He wasn’t in the mood no more.” Of Bill’s personality swings: “There was never a perfect person around. You just got half devil and half angel in you.” It’s not amazingly profound, but it’s astute and matter of fact. Because when living under such salt-of-the-earth conditions, where’s the time to judge people by anything but the way they act? The point, I think, is that life changes whether anyone is noticing or not. All there is to do is to keep track of what’s happening as it’s in front of you.
As mentioned before, Malick disappeared for two decades after Days of Heaven came out. When he returned with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, his reputation had grown to mythical proportions, one that enabled him to indulge his impulses with a steady string of non-narrative multi-hour epics. I don’t know much about Malick—he’s intentionally kept it that way for years, refusing to be photographed or interviewed—or what turned him from eccentric auteur to New Age guru. I don’t know if his upcoming projects—the waiting-to-be-released To the Wonder, starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, and two more in production, Lawless and Knight of Cups—will return to more emotionally precise territory, or whether they’ll continue his upward ascent into the clouds.
But it’s clear that we’re witnessing is an unparalleled streak of modern filmic artistry (apologies to all the dead and finished directors), the work of a genius with the clout to deliver his vision, and a vision that’s like no one else’s. Which is not to place Malick in hallowed territory or to suggest that his movies are beyond critique, but it’s immensely enjoyable to watch him tinker. Rest assured, Days of Heaven remains the pinnacle of an increasingly unique career.