One of the best aspects of moving to Chicago a couple of weeks ago is that I now live about five minutes away from the glorious Patio Theater. A huge one-screen theater from the days when going to the movies was an event in-and-of-itself, the Patio now operates as a rep in conjunction with the Northwest Chicago Film Society. They show great films at $5 a pop. You can't beat that, folks.
Last night, the Patio showed Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN, and what a joy it was to reacquaint myself with this movie--or, really, since I'd never seen it projected on the big screen before, it's more correct to say that I saw the film for the first time.
Malick's follow up to his debut with BADLANDS is a deepening of his vision. Like his first film, DAYS OF HEAVEN is the story of fugitive lovers on the run. In this film, however, the Malick we would come to know from films like THE THIN RED LINE, TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER came into full flower.
DAYS OF HEAVEN follows itinerant farm workers Bill and Abby (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams), lovers who pose as siblings and travel with Bill's young sister, Linda (Linda Manz). They wind up on a huge wheat farm in Texas owned by a quietly dying farmer played by Sam Shepard (who is known in the film only as The Farmer). When the rich man takes an interest in Abby, Bill sees an opportunity: Abby will marry the Farmer while Bill and Linda loaf around the farm and wait for the sickly man to die. This scheme goes as planned except for two things: Abby falls in love with the farmer, and the farmer doesn't die.
Like all of Malick's work, DAYS OF HEAVEN has a loose narrative structure that is put in place mostly to provide a framework for the poetry of its visuals. Malick is the rare filmmaker who is as assured working with his miniatures (extreme close-ups of bugs, plants, food) as he is with his vistas (the epic sweep of the wheat fields with the house on the hill looking as lonely as one of Hopper's landscape paintings).
The performances here are impressions rather than fully formed characters, an effect created by the elliptical editing. We come into scenes halfway through and leave before they've reached a traditional climax. The dialog drops in and out, as if we're overhearing private conversations. If Gere is too beautiful and mannered to be completely believable as Bill, Adams and Shepard are pitch perfect as Abby and The Farmer. Likewise, the not-often-commented upon performance of Richard Wilke as the Farm Foreman. One of the great character actors, Wilke creates a grizzled man of integrity and passion in just a few short scenes.
And Linda Manz, about fourteen or so when the film was shot, is astounding as the young sister--it's impossible to tell if she's giving a great performance or simply operating as a filmed subject. Maybe there's no difference. Either way, Manz ties the whole film together. It's her flat, beaten voice that narrates the story, her reserved point of view that we inhabit. Like the rest of the movie, she seems more elemental that practiced.