“We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not [Linda’s] passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end.”
Days of Heaven was a deeply upsetting film for me to watch in such a way that I’m only now beginning to understand why. Terrence Malick’s 1978 drama was critically acclaimed and is not a bad film by any means, and I have the utmost respect for what I experienced. There is a sense of dread and jarring sadness throughout the movie however that I couldn’t even parse as I watched, a kind of disorienting gloom.
It’s only now that I’m starting to understand the film’s confusing but imposing nature and I’m consumed by one thought: humans are shown as the same destructive, loud, horrifying force of nature as a storm or locust swarm is.
The beginning of the story and our introduction to one the main characters, Bill (Richard Gere), does not feature expository dialogue nor introductions in a direct way. Instead, we’re thrown into a hellish industrial steel mill that’s dominated by loud, jarring sounds that drown out the dialogue from Bill we could be hearing. Amidst the molten metal, trash, and horrible industrial noise, we see Bill and a higher-up argue and then enter a fight from which only Bill returns. Veterans of Malick, specifically of Badlands, are familiar with his fixation on industry v. nature. As in his previous film, uncomfortable close-ups of industrial machinery are alive and well in Days of Heaven, a theme juxtaposed by its beautiful, serene scenes of nature.
We press on and escape from Chicago with Bill, his little sister Linda (Linda Manz), and his partner Abby (Brooke Adams). Bill maintains that Abby is his sister to others but stays close to her, promising a better life than the poverty the group is immersed in. Amongst a horde of poor migrant workers they travel to the American midwest seeking work, all atop a menacing red and black train that seems out of place against a backdrop of green fields and, in a particularly Anderson-esque shot, bright blue skies.
Once they arrive (after a chaotic hiring scene) the stunning setting is showcased further. Far from the harsh noise of the steel mill, the fields are serene and quiet. Only animals and the wind make much noise at all, and even character dialogue takes on a muffled tone. Much has been said of the “golden hour” in which the movie was filmed; dawn and dusk casts a gorgeous light and acts as a bright backdrop against which characters become vague silhouettes.
This makes it all the more unsettling when the harvest begins. A cruel foreman watches over workers as they destroy the fields, reaping crop with huge, dark, horribly loud harvesters. Animals are shown fleeing or crying out as the calamity occurs via close shots near the ground that instill the audience themselves with fear of being trampled. The visuals and sound make the sequence as upsetting to watch as it probably could be.
This theme of quiet v. noise, serenity v. calamity, has obvious ties to the film’s plot. For most of the movie anything humans create is loud and harsh. The manor, which stands isolated and unrivaled in the vast fields, is adorned by the noisiest, horrible weather vane in the history of cinema. Shots of the house, even from rather far away, are entirely dominated by the sound of that awful helicopter-like thing, including the scene in which Bill and Abby’s affair is discovered by the wealthy owner of the estate credited only as “The Farmer” (Sam Shepard).
Ebert’s interpretation looks through Linda’s eyes (as we’re encouraged to do from her narration) to see the horrible destructive force humans present, one that nature retaliates against in kind. Just as the workers destroy the fields, locusts swarm the fields the following season in one my least favorite film sequences I’ve ever had to view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderfully shot and deeply meaningful, but the only thing worse than insects to me is excruciatingly long close-ups of thousands of them and their gross bodies.
After the locust swarm (a classic biblical harbinger of doom), the Farmer’s jealous rage starts an uncontrollable fire as he shouts “let it burn”. It’s a pretty heavy-handed but clear hierarchy that takes asserts itself: Man consumes plants and animals, apocalyptic locusts and fire consume man.
Stuck in the middle though is Linda, narrating the escape and downfall of our “heroes” in their respective ways. The Farmer is killed by Bill, Bill by the Law, and Abby and Linda are left to blend into proper society as best they can. The film ends with Linda resisting this back-and-forth in a scene I’d be lying to claim I fully grasp, but I’m thinking it could be a way of breaking the cycle of destruction and fleeing to the woods as the trio did before.