Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven shows what remained of the director’s interest in more traditional forms of storytelling. Like his more recent films, beautiful cinematography and stream of conscience voice over narration are dominate. Missing are the elements that some would label as self-indulgent. I won’t go quite that far, but let’s just say that Malick has a way of testing an audience’s patience at times.
Whether intentional or not, Days of Heaven borrows its main narrative straight from the Bible. Possibly a mix of stories between Moses and Abraham. Set in the early 1900’s, Bill is a steel-mill worker in Chicago who leaves abruptly after accidentally killing his supervisor. Bill heads south for Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and Abby’s younger sister. It’s the younger sister whose voice we hear narrating much of the movie with her distinctive Chicago accent. It’s a voice that contrasts with the beauty of the scenery on display – like a rusty spoon dragging across a chalkboard.
Bill does what any outstanding gentleman of his day would do which is pretend his girlfriend is his sister. He and his “sister” find work in a wheat field that belongs to a rich farmer (Sam Shepard). The farmer notices Bill’s fake sister and makes it known that he wouldn’t mind if she stayed on past the harvesting season. Around this same time Bill overhears the farmer’s doctor say that the farmer is dying. The setup is perfect for Bill, a man who has proven himself to be less than upright so far. He tells Abby that she should accept the farmer’s invite to stay. She’ll marry the farmer, Bill and the Abby’s little sis will get the run of the house as they wait for the farmer to keel over. Ah yes, the best laid plans.
Everything starts to fall apart when the farmer doesn’t die. A bit of conflict arises as a result and the whole thing ends rather practicably. In the midst of this simple story is sparse but generally solid acting. Malick will never be accused of letting his actors run rampant with dialogue. The tension that should result from the story and character conflict within never resonates. Instead, the film feels as though it’s never sure what is more interesting, the characters and their developing plot or the gorgeous scenery around them. As a result, the end is inevitable more than tragic. A beautiful film that is too distant from its emotional drive.