Days of Heaven

Fri, Sep 2, 2011, 01:00

Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert J Wilke Club, IFI, Dublin, 95 min (QFT, Belfast from Oct 7th)

THE SKY darkens as the swarm descends. The insects appear in monstrous dimensions, in close-up, larger and infinitely more menacing than the crowds of people dotted across the horizon. The panicked farmhands attempt to smoke out the pests but have no more luck than the Egyptians did in the Book of Exodus.

The nebulous eco-spiritual and Christian cultists who have flocked around Terence Malick’s The Tree of Lifewill find plenty to savour with this smart, timely reissue of the director’s 1978 masterpiece.

Arriving hot on the heels of this year’s Cannes winner, Days of Heaventakes on a more pronounced religious hue. Linda Manz’s voiceover reminds us that all of the characters are “half devil and half angel” and ponders Sam Shepard’s miraculous recovery: “Doctor must have come by and gave him medicine or something.” The famous plague of locusts descends with omnipotent timing.

The plot, too, operates with the logic of a parable. Chicago nogoodnik Bill (Richard Gere) kills a man and escapes with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and kid sister Linda (Manz) in a wave of migrant labourers. The trio drift until they find seasonal work in the Texas panhandle at the ranch of a withdrawn bachelor farmer (Shepard).

The farmer, who soon takes a shine to Adams’s upside-down smile, is shortly “destined for the boneyard”. Abby marries him at Bill’s behest so that they might inherit his fortune. Bill stays on as Abby’s “brother”, though the foreman suspects them from the get-go. Worse still, the farmer’s health stabilises.

Drawing on silent movies and works from Edward Hopper, Malick and cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler fashioned some of cinema’s most ravishing tableaux to better illustrate all the Shakespearean machinations and biblical allusions. No ray of light goes unused; no dawn or dusk goes unrecorded.

But behind the balletic movement of changing seasons and Ennio Morricone’s hypnotic, iconic score, all was not well. Malick would spend two years in the editing suite, axing most of the screenplay in favour of Manz’s panhandling, deadpan voiceover. By the end of the process, cinema’s most reclusive film-maker was exhausted. He hightailed it to Paris, leaving behind a carte blanchedeal with Paramount and an era when an auteur might more easily secure studio funding.

Malick wouldn’t make another film until The Thin Red Linesome 20 years later. He has yet to make a better one.