The title itself contrasts with the arduous and uncertain lives of the migrant workers that the film portrays. Its sounds and images are extraordinarily delicate and lyrical, yet at the same time, they depict a world of poverty, inequity, violence and deceit. The wheat fields on which the drama plays out might seem like a paradise, but the characters find themselves very far from heaven.
The simplicity of the plot belies the film’s deep ambiguity. Set in 1916, it tells the story of Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), a young couple on the run from the law with Bill’s younger sister Linda (Linda Manz), as they hobo to Texas and find temporary work harvesting crops for a wealthy yet sickly farmer (Sam Shepard). Ground down by the remorseless labour in the fields, Bill attempts to grift the farmer by pressuring Abby into a false romance with him.
There is a stillness to the cinematography and a detachment to Malick’s style which does not admit easy moral judgments. The farmer is good-natured yet he has become extremely wealthy simply by owning the land on which others must slog; Bill exploits Abby yet he does so as much out of despair as out of avarice. A particularly bitter irony is Bill’s attempt to persuade her to marry the farmer – “I hate seeing you stooped over out there. Men looking at your ass like you’re a whore.” On this question – whether treachery in the bedroom is preferable to toil in the fields – the film remains as ambivalent as the twilight in which so much of it is set.
Days of Heaven may be interpreted as a meditation on inequality, how it degrades and dehumanises. It may also be appreciated simply as a gorgeous work of art whose scenes are like Impressionist paintings made dreamlike by the elegance of Ennio Morricone’s score. Indeed, the film rewards repeat viewings, for rarely have the factories and fields of America been so beguiling and so beautiful.
⏭ Alfie Gallagher is a Sligo based blogger who can be found @ Left From The West.