Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Days of Heaven (1978)

My wife checked out a Roger Ebert book called The Great Films. This is, of course, only Ebert’s own opinion of the greatest movies ever, but it proved really useful in suggesting movies we might never have thought to watch. The book recommended “Days of Heaven,” which ranks as one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen. In fact, I think this movie is mainly known for the beautiful imagery created by director Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) and cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Goin' South, Places in the heart).

The story follows angry-young-man Bill (Richard Gere), his sister Linda, and his girlfriend Abby. Born into poverty, Bill is too intelligent to resign himself to drudgery and abusive bosses, but not quite sharp enough to find a way out. In the heat of an argument, he kills his boss in Chicago, so he and his little family flee to the farmland out west. In Texas, they find more of the same thing they had in Chicago: hard work, crappy pay, and petty bosses. When the gentleman farmer (Sam Shepard) falls for Abby, whom Bill has been passing off as another sister, Bill encourages the match, essentially pimping out his girl in hopes of a life of wealth. Inevitably, their desperate attempt to better their lot leads to misery all around.

In this film, Richard Gere really demonstrated that he was not just a pretty-boy, but a decent actor, even if his range is somewhat limited. He lends great humanity to Bill, who is prickly and proud, but not a bad man. He encourages Abby to marry the farmer because it is known that the man is sick and expected to die soon. Bill is too young and callow to suspect that his and Abby’s love is unlikely to outlive her husband. He tries to follow his mind, but in the end is betrayed by his heart, which is neither pure enough nor completely mercenary enough to carry him through.

The best character in the film is Bill’s preteen sister, Linda (Linda Manz). While Bill, Abby, and the farmer pursue their love triangle, Linda is basically left to grow up on her own, providing heartbreaking voice-over narration. She provides the majority of the pathos in the film with lines like, “I've been thinking what to do wit' my future. I could be a mud doctor. Checkin' out the eart'. Underneat'.” She also passes perfect judgment on her elders with a line that pretty much sums up the movie, “Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”

Really, the main characters are all sympathetic in their own way. These people are easy to root for, which just makes it more of a downer when things don’t go well. I’ve never been a big fan of naturalistic fiction. Watching the doomed, pitiful protagonists of Ethan Fromme or The Grapes of Wrath struggle and fail to escape from their miserable lives is just a big bummer. That’s why, despite the beauty of “Days of Heaven,” I was left feeling a little disappointed. Still, I was thinking about the movie days later, which speaks well for it. Other than that one hitch, which is a matter of my personal taste, this is a good story, well-acted, and stunningly filmed.

4 out of 5 stars.

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