• Badlands hinted at the brilliance of Terrence Malick (and for almost every other filmmaker in history it would easily be their finest hour), but Days of Heaven feels like the full realization of a master in complete command of his craft, in only his sophomore effort.
  • The high watermark for the term “magic hour” photography and perhaps cinematic photography (exteriors especially) in general. Malick would purposefully shoot almost the entire film at dusk- the best moment for photography. This had to be painstaking to achieve in natural lighting. But the consistency shows—if you collect and look at the individual frames from the film (as I have)- they look like individuals pieces of a whole- a collection for an art exhibition.

magic hour photography

  • The great Ebert- “Days of Heaven” is above all one of the most beautiful films ever made.” https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-days-of-heaven-1978
  • If you only have time to read one thing on Days of Heaven– please skip my page and read Nick Schager’s argument for the film here. It is humbling to read writing like this https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/days-of-heaven/
  • “It is, ultimately, nothing more or less than the definitive proof of film’s status as an inherently sensory medium.”https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/days-of-heaven/
  • Michael Atkinson It seems almost incontestably…the most gorgeously photographed film ever made. [23 March 1999] 
  • Look at the resume of Jack Fisk- he’s the art director here. He’d go on to be the production designer on Mulholland Dr., The New World, There Will Be Blood (so that’s Lynch, PTA and Malick), The Tree of Life, The Master and The Revenant (so add Inarritu to that list)— wow
  • Malick used three directors of photography on Badlands– and he essentially does the same here. Haskell Wexler (he says he did most), Néstor Almendros (Oscar win, officially credited) and Malick himself. No offense to Badlands, but the visual triumph here dwarfs Malick’s debut film.
  • There is less of a script here than Badlands (apparently Malick threw it out completely and just shot photography for a year as the actors found their characters and improvised), and that’s a trend you’d see continue over Malick’s career. There’s less in-scene dialogue. In fact, in the opening Gere is really miming words at the factory with dubbing.
  • The story unfolds like a biblical parable—- the title is taken from Deuteronomy.
  • It is hardly worth mentioning- but I do wish Malick gave us one line in the voice over about how Bill (Richard Gere) and Linda (Linda Manz) started out on the east coast. Her voice (and we get a lot of it in the voice-over) is certainly New York- and they are  “from” Chicago.
  • So much of the action is improvised- small talk, trivialities, playing tag, running, fighting, chasing animals…. these are models in Malick’s world (and what better model than newcomer  Richard Gere here in 1978). He, Linda Manz and Sam Shepard are perfect for what Malick wants. He doesn’t want a performance, and rarely captures a long back and forth dialogue scene. The average shot length (ASL) is low. There are montages of the harvest, wheat and the animals. This is as picturesque (set in Texas, shot in Alberta, Canada) as Eden with a sin (perhaps even original sin) as the downfall. It is also the story of the new world and immigrants- different nationalities, races, and accents in the medley of the workers/laborers.

Like in Badlands before it, Malick is interested in the juxtaposition of the beauty of nature and the sins/flaws/violence in humanity

The jaw-dropping heavens opening up with the storm on the wheat field at the 33-minute mark– a cinematic painting. Days of Heaven is 94-minutes long and on one hand it does feel like a poem– but on the other–it has the reach and weight of an epic.

The blessing on the harvest, the marriage- very religious—Shepard says “you’re like an angel”

A devastating shot at the 18-minute mark capturing the magic hour—Brooke Adams and Shepard with the massive set piece house as a backdrop.

Malick uses that house as framing device—he uses a gazebo as well often.

At the 21-minute mark- the line of old-timey plows and trackers line up with the workers—all in silhouette magic hour photography

As the story progresses, things are going well for Bill (Gere’s) plan—then all of a sudden Malick cuts to the anemometer to show the wind changing—genius.

  • Brooke Adams’ Abby heals the Shepard character (known only as “the farmer”), language like “I think the devil was on the farm”, “if you’ve been good, you’ll escape the fire”….Gere’s Bill is not a villain. “I got nobody to blame but myself”.

There are the locusts and the subsequent fire as the opening voice-over by Manz foretold.

  • The film is a breathtaking visual tone poem. Cut up in montage (it took two years for Malick to put it together in the editing room)—wheat waving, grass sprouting up from the earth as Malick captured life in a blissful setting. Dissolves are used often—which is fitting for the lyrical style.

At the 70-minute mark, Malick produces one of cinema’s greatest single frames. The actors pose in front of the massive set piece house in the background, in silhouette, staggered throughout the frame impeccably- a perfect composition.

  • One of the greatest Morricone scores (which makes it one of finest pieces of music in the 20th century)—it plays like a sad dream. I think it may have had an effect on another one of cinema’s finest- the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score for The Assassination of Jesse James (2007)
  • I’m not entirely sure why Malick ends the film on the Jackie Shultis’ character- Linda’s friend
  • A masterpiece – one of cinema’s most beautiful films. And unfortunately, Days of Heaven is the last word from Terrence Malick for twenty years.