Monday, June 20, 2011
An Exodus into Destruction
I can still remember the first time I watched Terrence Malick's, Days of Heaven. I knew nothing about the movie, I just thought the picture on the DVD case looked interesting (which, by the way, is a risky way to pick a movie). Like the majority of my movie experiences in high school, I watched it late at night, under the covers, on a portable DVD player. Many of the best viewings in my life didn't take place on a huge screen in the theater, they took place on that little red Toshiba. For me, that little 6 inch screen was like a magic door opening up to a new world every night.
Days of Heaven doesn't have a very complex plot, there isn't much action and because of the way it's told, there isn't a great deal of character development. That being said, it is one of the most strikingly beautiful films I have ever seen. The breathtaking cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler matched with Ennio Morricone's elegiac score creates a tone few films can match.
The movie opens just before World War I. An incident at a steel mill forces Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz) to hop a train and flee to Texas. The story is told through the eyes of Linda, and because of that many criticize the film for seeming detached. I disagree with this analysis. When we were that age did we really understand the passions of adults? All of the complexities of the world around us? Of course not, we saw the world as it applied to us at that time, and this is how Malick develops his film. The world is seen through the very small filter of a young girl.
Once the three arrive in Texas, they get work on a wheat field owned by a man we will only know by what Linda calls him, The Farmer (Sam Shepard). The majority of the film is set outside in the awe-inspiring Texas landscape. The Farmer's house is like a Gothic castle towering over the fields far in the background. These scenes are magnificently haunting. The story may be spoken by Linda, but if you look closely enough, the cinematography will show you the true story, and it is a dark tale.
Bill learns that the Farmer is a dying man, a dying wealthy man. He begins to form a plan. He convinces her to pretend to be his sister and to try and make the Farmer fall in love with her. By doing this, he hopes that the Farmer will die and leave his money to Abby, making him a rich man. Abby reluctantly agrees to go along with the plan and begins a relationship with the Farmer.
The plan seems solid enough until two unexpected things happen: the first, the Farmer just keeps living and, the second, Abby falls in love with him. Malick does not show us the pain through the characters, rather, we feel it through the nature around them. I cannot say enough about the cinematography of this movie. Every emotion is conveyed in the colors, lights and shadows of the fields. The characters were at peace. They had found a home. They were in their own private Heaven.
And then came the plague.
In a scene of Biblical proportions, a plague of locust descends upon the wheat fields and the whole world goes to Hell. The locust plummet to the ground in a dark, foreboding cloud. Soon the screen is consumed by fire and the film comes to a devastating climax. Linda's final words echo on a darkening screen and we are penetrated by her reaction to the events that have just taken place. She had left Hell, found a Heaven and then the people around her took it all away. But she walks away from it, almost emotionless. The world has robbed her of emotions.
This is one of my favorite movies. Days of Heaven is film in its purest form. Images, creating a powerful feeling that resonates with us long after the credits have rolled. It is haunting and sorrowful while being beautiful at the same time. There are many times I wish I could go back and relive some of those magic moments on my little Toshiba. Being swept away by this movie was one of those remarkable little occasions.
Friday night you should be watching:
Days of Heaven