The second, and last, film of the first phase of Terrence Malick’s career (a twenty year gap between projects comes before the next phase), this one shifts closer to the style of his much more numerous later films, with its even sparser plot than “Badlands”, increased focus on gorgeous imagery and visual storytelling, looser and more improvisational narration, and a more rambling and esoteric style in general. Where “Badlands” felt like commentary more specifically on American society, “Days of Heaven” feels both more intimate, trading in the road trip structure and frequent violence of that film for a heightened focus on less dramatic character interactions, an approach that ends up feeling more mythic (Biblical allusions at play) and more intimate at once. Less coherent and structured, but touching deeper.
The film trades in such gorgeous beauty, shot nearly entirely in the golden or magic hour, that short period of dusk when the sun has set but before it is night, where the sky is lit without sun and everything is bathed in a soft golden beauty. The gorgeous photography and lighting, and Malick’s stunning sense of composition (perhaps “painterly” would even be the better descriptor than “cinematic”), it all comes together to form such a beautiful film, and is a huge part of how the film’s wheat fields are realised as some sort of period Eden, lit in a heavenly golden hue, and ultimately tainted by the folly of humans.
The growing marks of industrialisation and capitalism, the encroachments of machinery extracting profit from the fields, pushes in on the vagrant character’s search for life. Suffering and poverty bring the characters together in pain, and success and profit pulls them apart in actualisation of their loneliness and flawed natures. Growth comes when characters become aware of this and do what they can to provide stability to others towards the end (though, of course, a child resents that stability and mantles their own path again). Mankind’s yearning for independence here plays off “Badlands” in interesting ways, but it’s a decidedly more feminine approach here, and wistful where “Badlands” was chilling. Such a beautiful film. Four peanut shells, and a sister.