The Big Picture
- The 2023 box office is suffering due to the abundance of streaming content, making it necessary for films to have a compelling reason to be seen in theaters.
- Films with spectacle and emotional/aesthetic appeal are both worthy of being seen on the big screen.
- Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a beautifully made film that demands to be seen theatrically due to its overwhelming emotional language and inventive visual storytelling.
As evidenced by the depressed state of the 2023 box office, audiences need a truly compelling reason to spend their time seeing a new film in the theater. Due to the overabundance of streaming content and films available on digital rental services, films that want to be seen in their intended format require an overarching element that makes them worthy of being seen in the theater. Often, films that are massive spectacles like Oppenheimer or Top Gun: Maverick are considered to be most worthy of theatrical exhibition because of the massive scope and scale at which they are operating. However, spectacle isn’t the only thing that audiences go to the cinema for; films that are emotionally and aesthetically pleasing are just as worthy of being seen on the big screen. Terrence Malick’s gorgeous romantic Western Days of Heaven is one of those rare films that demands being seen theatrically because of how overwhelming its emotional language is. Now that Days of Heaven is being re-released at the Egyptian Theater, recently restored by Netflix, it’s a better time than ever to celebrate one of the most beautiful films ever made.
Days of Heaven
A hot-tempered farm laborer convinces the woman he loves to marry their rich but dying boss so that they can have a claim to his fortune.
- Release Date
- September 13, 1978
- Terrence Malick
- Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert J. Wilke, Jackie Shultis
- Drama, Documentary, Romance
- Terrence Malick
- Your eyes… Your ears… Your senses… will be overwhelmed.
‘Days of Heaven’ Shows the Heartbreak of a Strained Romance
Days of Heaven is deceptive because of how simple its story is. While the story feels inspired by other classical romance films, the specificity with which Terrence Malick fleshes out his naturalistic environments makes the central relationships more impactful. Although Days of Heaven is set during the midst of World War I, it focuses on a slice of Americana that seems timeless. The film follows the poor laborer Bill (Richard Gere), who is forced to flee his job at a steel mill in Chicago after he is blamed for a violent accident that costs one of his co-workers his life. Bill goes on the run with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and eventually finds work in the Texas panhandle. Although the couple can adjust their lifestyle to fit within this new environment, Bill and Abby are forced to mask their relationship by pretending to be siblings and not lovers. Being denied the chance to love each other haunts both characters, as they can’t help but compare their early days in Chicago with the reality of life in Texas.
Days of Heaven is heartbreaking because it shows how the change of location makes Bill and Abby’s relationship more challenging. Malick is keen to note how limited Bill and Abby’s worldview is before they venture on their trip. The film takes place before internet communication and news services allowed people to understand what life looked like outside of the places that they could visit; even though the film takes place amidst World War I, the war itself is only briefly mentioned. Bill and Abby have never experienced a world beyond Chicago, so any change was going to be an adjustment. Physically, Bill finds that his new job as a farmer requires a much different set of skills than what he was used to at the steel mill. However, it’s the cultural changes that make for the most challenging adjustments. The couple now lives in an environment where inheritance and familial ties play a significant factor in marriage.
Terrence Malick shows how challenging it is for Bill and Abby to hide their relationship. Being separated may have been difficult, but spending time together whilst not being able to express their love is perhaps even more challenging. While Malick isn’t always considered to be an approachable filmmaker, there’s a sincerity to Bill and Abby’s dilemma that his other films lack. Their relationship is threatened when a kindly farmer (Sam Shepard) begins to show an affinity for Abby. Bill can’t help but be upset, but he doesn’t have any reason to hate the farmer because his relationship with Abby is a secret. It’s a heartbreaking situation because the farmer doesn’t know that he’s disrupting a preexisting relationship. Movies with love triangles can often be manipulative, but Days of Heaven doesn’t make either Bill or the farmer into a villain. Neither man can be blamed for acting on what his heart desires.
‘Days of Heaven’ Featured Inventive Visual Storytelling
Days of Heaven was a significant film within Malick’s career because of its beautiful visuals, which earned cinematographer Néstor Almendros an Academy Award nomination. While Days of Heaven isn’t always considered to be a “Western,” its wide-angled cinematography and sweeping landscape shots aren’t dissimilar from the iconic ending battle of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Similar to Sergio Leone’s masterful adventure film, Days of Heaven features extended sequences where there is little dialogue or movement. This allows the film to focus on every subtle movement that the characters make and draws more attention to the natural environments in the background. Any frame from Days of Heaven could be taken out and framed; each shot has the depth and color of a great painting.
Days of Heaven marked a step forward for Malick as a filmmaker. While his previous film, the crime thriller Badlands, had been an impressive directorial debut, it felt indebted to the influence of Bonnie & Clyde. Comparatively, Malick’s later films grew more experimental and disconnected from reality; while The Tree of Life’s ending may have gotten audiences thinking about its religious allusions, it wasn’t as impactful on an emotional level. Days of Heaven finds the perfect balance between Malick’s arthouse and classical sensibilities. While some sequences speak to his metaphorical inspirations, it’s never for the sake of the characters and their relationships. This visual splendor can be appreciated by film fans watching the Criterion release, but they are best witnessed on the big screen.
Days of Heaven is beautiful because there’s nothing about Bill and Abby’s journey that feels extraordinary. As tragic as Bill’s fate is, it isn’t dramatized in a way that feels unrealistic. This affinity that Malick shows for “normal people” is the film’s greatest strength. It’s a film about the beauty that can be found in reality. Although the characters dream about “days of heaven,” the most rewarding experiences they have are the fleeting moments that they have on Earth.
Days of Heaven is available to stream on Pluto TV in the U.S.
Watch on Pluto TV
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