Directed by Terrence Malick
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 94 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Release Date: October 24, 2007
Review Date: October 17, 2007
What might have been a standard love triangle between two men and a woman is instead fashioned into a lyrical near-masterpiece by writer-director Terrence Malick in Days of Heaven, one of the true marvels of 1970s filmmaking. Unlike almost any other film being released in that cinematically creative decade by a major studio, Days of Heaven is much more about mood and tone than it is about making narrative points. This is a movie that one experiences a particular vibe from, and its enthralling spell is hard to describe and nearly impossible for any other film to duplicate.
It’s 1916 in the southwestern United States, a time when immigrants and itinerants traveled the rails looking to do seasonal labor on homesteads, vast ranches, and farms. Into this countryside comes Bill (Richard Gere) fresh from a steel mill in Chicago together with his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and Bill’s young sister Linda (Linda Manz). Linda is the film’s narrator, and her laconic, down-to-earth, almost world-weary point of view casts on the film a hypnotic spell, especially since there is little dialogue between the characters and much of the movie’s atmosphere is established with images, sound effects, and a classic score by Ennio Morricone.
To prevent too many probing questions, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, but they have a strong attraction to each other and don’t end up fooling as many people as they think they do. However, the wealthy, unmarried owner of the wheat farm (Sam Shepard) they begin to work becomes smitten with Abby and begins a courtship. Bill decides a marriage would be advantageous for them, especially when he overhears that her potential husband is incurably ill and has only a year at most to live. Much to Bill’s surprise, however, the marriage becomes a tonic to the farmer’s health, and Abby actually begins to fall in love with him.
The slightly melodramatic plot is spelled by the absolutely stunning cinematography of Nestor Almendros (additional photography by Haskell Wexler after Almendros’ next job pulled him off the project). Never has the heartland of America (shot ironically in Alberta, Canada) looked so spectacular. These images, filmed mostly in natural light and with some of the most creative use of cameras ever seen in a film to capture wide ranging vistas and also close-ups so stark you can reach out and touch, simply take one’s breath away. The richly earned Oscar for cinematography that this film garnered has never been awarded so deservedly.
This was Richard Gere’s first film, and though he had worked exclusively on the stage prior to this movie, it’s obvious in just a shot or two that he was born for the camera. Brooke Adams’ forlorn expressions through much of the movie are heartbreaking (she‘s the most conflicted bride you‘ll ever see), trapped between a glorious marriage and a lover who can’t understand how his plans have gone awry. Linda Manz’s work is likewise moving, a young girl with no direction and simply living each day as it comes taking what life has to offer.
But those images! That’s what you’ll take away from this film whether you’ve watched it one time or a hundred times: blue-hued fields caught at dusk, the acres of golden wheat blowing in the wind with the palatial home rising in the distance (reminiscent of the vast Reata ranch in Giant), a climactic one-two punch of a locust attack with a raging inferno that begins as the men attempt to save the crop. Malick’s direction is spare when it needs to be and intricate when scenes with several characters demand it. The prizes he won as Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics (the film won Best Picture from the National Board of Review) attest to his excellence.
The film comes to DVD with a new 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, and it’s in the main a stunning achievement. Colors are rich, sharpness is well above average (those close-ups of prairie chickens and wild turkeys are so clear you can count feathers, and the locusts are eerily three dimensional), and black levels are great. In dark scenes, grain does appear, and I noted one slight scratch late in the film. Otherwise, it’s as pristine as the film demands. The movie has been divided into 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a clean audio experience though the mix is decidedly front heavy until the natural disasters hit the farm late in the film. Then, the rears get some use, and the LFE channel boasts some surprising depth for a film of this age.
An audio commentary features four behind-the-scenes participants gathered in 2007 for reminiscences about making the film: casting director Dianne Crittenden, film editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, and costume designer Patricia Norris. It’s an excellent gab fest as each person gives opinions, relays information not contained in other features on the disc, and genuinely enjoys revisiting this American classic.
An audio interview with actor Richard Gere is played against clips from the film and lasts 22 minutes. Gere discusses his theater background and Malick’s working style.
A video interview with actor Sam Sheppard (filmed in 2002) explains how he came to work on the movie and his impressions of Malick as a director. This anamorphic featurette with more clips from the film runs 12½ minutes.
Cinematographer Nestor Almendros died in 1992, but the two other men most responsible for the look of the film each get video interviews. Camera operator John Bailey has a 20 minute discussion of his feelings about Almendros and the techniques used while working on this project. Oscar-winner Haskell Wexler has an 11½-minute interview explaining how he came aboard the project before the end of filming. Both featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The enclosed 40-page booklet includes some beautiful stills from the picture, a critical analysis of the film and its director by Australian film scholar Adrian Martin, and the lengthy chapter about Days of Heaven from Nestor Almendros’ autobiography A Man With a Camera which covers in depth his work on filming this movie.
There aren’t many American films that are as poetic and impressionistic in their impact as Days of Heaven. It’s a film connoisseur’s delight, and one of the true originals in American cinema of this period.