DAYS OF HEAVEN
Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams,
Sam Shepard, Linda Manz
Director: Terrence Malick
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 94 Minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2010
ďNobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.Ē
I am disappointed with only one thing about Terrence Malickís Days of Heaven, which is that I was never able to experience this luminous masterpiece on the big screen. The film was released in 1978; I was born the next year. For many years now Iíve stated that if I could choose a single film from the past to experience on the biggest theater screen possible, this would be that film.
And every time I watch the film, the one thought that lay in the back of my mind is how ahead of its time a film like this must have been in the late 70s. There was certainly no other film experience like this at that time. Then again, there is certainly no other filmmaker like Terrence Malick, who to this day possesses a distinct poetic vision that few directors, if any, could ever hope to attain.
Malickís first film, Badlands, had already won the director incredible acclaim upon its release in 1973. But it would be this film that would establish him as one of the most innovative filmmakers to ever grace the film scene. It would also establish him as a true perfectionist of his art, as he would wait twenty precious years until he unveiled his next film, The Thin Red Line.
What Malick incorporated into this film was a form of cinematic storytelling that audiences werenít quite used to. Rather than having characters and plot situations guide a film, Malick relied more on cinematography, sound, music score and voice over narration. The risky filmmaking maneuver worked, as it worked in very much sweeping the viewer right into a near dreamlike state, making this more than just a film but more of an experience.
And even though the look of Days of Heaven is the heart of the film, thereís still a great story being told even if it is done so in segments. Set in pre World War I times, the story tells of three drifters: Bill (Richard Gere), his dearest love Abby (Brooke Adams), and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz). They are forced on the run after Bill accidentally kills his superior at the steel mill.
The three hitch a train that takes them all the way down to Texas, where harvest season has begun and work is needed in the wheat fields. They all take up jobs as laborers, which pays very little for work that lasts all day. The land is owned by a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard), who is lonely and takes an immediate liking to Abby.
How does this come to be? Upon arriving in Texas, Bill tells everyone that Abby is his sister. This is done to prevent any kind of unwanted gossip from the fellow wheat fielders. The smitten farmer, as it turns out, may have only a year left to live. So Bill then persuades Abby to go so far as to marry him, so that when he passes on, she will have enough money to live off of, since the farmer has additional family.
The two are soon married, but it isnít long before the farmer witnesses Bill and Abby acting more intimate than a brother and sister should. This leads to Bill making a break from the field and traveling with a flying circus act for a year. When he returns for the harvest, he discovers that Abby may have indeed fallen for the ill farmer after he spent the last year taking care of both her and young Linda.
The story then escalates into an unexpected tragedy. The soon discovered love triangle unfolds against a number of biblical like disasters. Grasshoppers plague the land, the fields soon catch fire, and to end them all is a jealous rage that causes much more damage than fire to the field.
The filmís cinematography, courtesy of the late Nestor Almendros (along with additional photography by Haskell Wexler), was rewarded with an Oscar. For Days of Heaven to lose to another film in that category would be such a cinematic crime against humanity, let alone cinema. Itís hard to recall another film that consisted of so many beautiful and haunting images in just about every individual shot. Even the shots of the farmerís gothic mansion home manage to strike the senses in unspeakable ways. The Texas landscape has never looked more authentic, a point worth noting because the film was actually shot on location in Canada.
It took a while for me to warm up to Richard Gere. It wasnít until I saw him do edgier work in films like Primal Fear and Internal Affairs that I realized how much range he possessed as an actor. But one watch of his performance in Days of Heaven, and itís easy to see why he went on to the bigger projects. Aside from how incredibly young he looks in the film (his first leading role), Gere delivers quite an impact as the well meaning but deeply troubled Bill. As it turns out, Malick originally wanted John Travolta for the part.
Sam Shepard, who at this point was known only through his work as a playwright, also delivers a most impressive debut film performance as the character simply known as The Farmer. Shepard, also looking at his youngest here, clearly has the more difficult role of the film as he goes from a quiet romantic to heartbroken and enraged by the end of the film.
And as for the two key female roles, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz are both incredibly effective. Adams also finds herself in a quite difficult role as a conflicted woman caught between two men, a familiar scenario that has never felt more real than it does in this film. And the young Ms. Manz represents the heart of the film, since the story is told from her perspective and her voice provides the filmís haunting voice-over narration.
The 70s introduced us to some fresh visions and some breakthroughs in the cinematic art form, and no other film from the decade is a better example than Days of Heaven. Terrence Malick brought to the screen something remarkably special in blending in lush beautiful photography with storytelling to create a vision that will forever be hard to duplicate. Days of Heaven remains one of the truly great films Iíve had the fortune to experience.
As far as visual presentations go, Criterionís 2007 DVD release of the film was truly groundbreaking. But even if you own that version and have watched it multiple times, you ainít seen nothing yet! On Blu-ray, Malickís film is even more astounding to the visual senses. Everything that was great about the DVD transfer is doubled here. Through the 1080p, this beautiful cinematic world will seem more realistic and vivid than ever. The transfer has been supervised by Malick, editor Billy Weber and camera operator John Bailey, indicating that the right way was the only way this was going to show up in HD.
The anamorphic picture is astounding in its presenting of the beautiful images throughout the film. The level of image clarity and all around detail is nothing short of outstanding. It is so remarkable that, to be quite honest, words canít describe. As is the case with the film itself, your senses will be overwhelmed. The colors in the picture are magnificent, in addition. What was once the best looking DVD presentation for a 70s film has now become the absolute BEST Blu-ray presentation for a 70s film.
I simply couldnít wait to hear this film in a DTS HD mix, and it was every bit as beautiful and dynamic as I had hoped it would be. To start with, that opening scene in the steel mill has never sounded more magnificent or overpowering. That sequence and a later scene involving tractors in the field are good enough reasons to upgrade to Blu-ray. Added to that, Ennio Morriconeís timeless score sounds more sweeping than it ever has. And never before has the sound of a single gun shot had such an effect on me. Even though I knew when to expect it, the sound of it here shook me nonetheless. There arenít enough existing adjectives to describe how amazing a job Criterion has done here!
All the extras from Criterionís DVD release have been ported over here, only this time theyíre offered in HD. These supplements include a commentary track which features camera operator John Bailey, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden. As you could expect, this is a most informative commentary with amazing insight into the filmís production. Also included is a terrific audio interview with Richard Gere, which is played against an image gallery. Thereís also a most in-depth video interview with cinematographers Haskell Wexler and John Bailey, as well as one with Sam Shepard. Both interviews are quite revealing regarding the filmís production and history.
Lastly, there is an incredible booklet featuring an essay by critic Adrian Martin, as well as a chapter from the biography of cinematographer Nestor Almendros.
Having the chance to review Days of Heaven is something Iíve long looked forward to ever since I began reviewing for this site. And getting the chance to experience it on Blu-ray was about as big a treat as I could ever ask for. Thanks to this fantastic release from Criterion, I finally got to fulfill that opportunity. I canít stress this enough; if youíve had yet to experience this one of a kind experience, this Blu-ray edition marks the absolute best opportunity for you to do so. It was destined to be seen in this format!