In any Terrence Malick film, themes are essential to understanding his film. While his later work are overt about their ideas — The Tree of Life presents the entire thesis of the film in voiceover — Days of Heaven is the film I’ve always found his most difficult and elusive to understand. That difficulty is what makes it my favorite film of his work.
Even after seeing the film close to twenty times, I still wrestle with the ideas and finding moments and scenes that gain new life with each viewing. One of the ideas I’ve found central to the film after the first ten or so viewings is the division between the haves and the have nots.
The film is told through the narration and perspective of Linda (Linda Manz), the kid sister of Bill (Richard Gere), a man whose short temper means that he is always on the run from his latest brawl. Bill has a girl named Abby (Brook Adams) who he tells everyone is his sister. The trio makes their way to Texas and work for The Farmer (Sam Shepard) who becomes interested in Abby. When Bill hears news that the Farmer is close to death, he decides that this is their chance to make it big. He tells Abby to court and marry the Farmer so that they can collect his fortune when he dies.
While Bill and The Farmer get along well enough as The Farmer develops a relationship with Abby, the film contrasts the two men. Bill is a drifter, never able to hold any stability or have a place to call home. At one point he even has to go off on his own, leaving Abby and Linda on the farm. The Farmer is the only character in the film that has his own house which he has lived on for years. He’s rooted to this land.
The film also contrasts the divide between the rich and the poor through visuals. In one scene, the workers come back from the fields in tattered clothes while The Farmer sits in a wooden chair with a padded back holding a cup of wine in his hands. He’s in a white, button up shirt with a black vest, a tie, and a clean hat. Here he is in the midst of his land sitting, doing nothing, while the poor run themselves ragged to his profit.
Another visual contrast is the meals. When the workers eat, they sit on wooden benches in the field, the ground, or on the backs of wagons, eating slop on worn plates. Later in the film, after The Farmer and Abby are married, they have a meal with Bill and Linda in a white pavilion eating from nice china with bowls and platters of fresh food surrounding them.
Food is wasted in each scene. In the meal among the workers, Bill throws his plates of food at a man who accuses him of sleeping with his “sister,” Abby. As a result, Bill and Abby go hungry for the night. In the scene at The Farmer’s pavilion, Bill, Abby and Linda begin throwing food at each other; Abby gets mad at Linda and tosses her plate of food to the dogs. Here, there is so much that the waste of food is a game.
There are many moments that reflect the contrast in the mentality and physical realities of the haves vs. the have nots. For instance Bill and Abby run away one night and drink wine in the river. Bill drops his glass and Abby tells him not to worry about it because they have plenty of other glasses. Another example is when Bill talks to The Farmer about how he used to have an ambition that one day he’d make it, be able to break out of the working class and get his big score.
While Days of Heaven sets up this framework for the division between the haves and have nots, what Malick concludes about the divide is fascinating. Far from having any social or political motivation, Malick looks at whether or not status can make someone happy. After all, the assumption this divide makes is that being rich equates with being happy.
The Farmer, when we meet him, is not a particularly happy person. As Linda comments in the narration he’s a solitary, lonely man who has no one to talk to and no companion in life. She pities him. He may have land, wealth and stability, but he’s a melancholy character. The Farmer is also dying. His great wealth can’t save him from the inevitability of mortality, even as it threatens to take him at midlife. At the least, he needs a human relationship to be happy.
In contrast, as tough and tiring as the life of the workers is, as much as they slave away to keep up and earn a day’s wage, when they reach the end of the day, there’s a sense of comradely and community that makes people smile, laugh, go for a swim, and enjoy themselves. When the harvest ends, there’s a large party with singing and dancing. Until The Farmer meets Abby, he is unable to enjoy anything.
But surely people would be able to better enjoy these things when wealthy? For a while, it seems that way. For a season, The Farmer, Abby, Bill and Linda are able to have fun doing whatever they please. However, material wealth is not enough. Even though Bill pushes away Abby to get the wealth he always wanted, he still wants to have her and tensions rise when The Farmer continues to live instead of dying as predicted. It’s not enough for Bill to be able to enjoy the rich life he always wanted, he must own them, even if it means the death of another man.
Likewise, the relationship The Farmer pursued in order to make him happy is ultimately unsatisfying. He begins to have suspicions about Bill and Abby (well founded, since they continue their relationship after she marries The Farmer). He asks her why she is distant. When Bill leaves, there is a season of happiness together, but when Bill returns, The Farmer’s jealousy flairs up and consumes him. What he sought in happiness he turns into the object of his hatred.
People always want more. That’s one of the conclusions that Terrence Malick makes when examining these tensions. Being rich doesn’t satisfy our desires. If anything, it just spurs our desires deep into a cycle of self-destruction. Being in relationships means being involved with people that will likely hurt us and if we live with them long enough, the happiness we once felt will not last. We can’t have a perfect, happy life. It’s impossible. There will always be trials and hardships, conflicts and compromises. If we are to be happy, it cannot be because of what we have or the relationships we develop with other people. Those things will never be enough.
After Bill and Abby’s deception is found out, Linda ends up making a new friend. In the final line of the film she says, “We didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. I was hopin’ things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.” When it comes to happiness, we’re like Linda, children wandering through life hoping to find something through relationships and materials that will ultimately prove fleeting and unsatisfying.
3 thoughts on “The Second Criterion: ‘Days of Heaven’”
Great piece. If Criterion ever wants to release it again… they should include your essay. It’s still my favorite Malick film and just a true work of art.
Thanks! Needless to say, it still remains my favorite Malick as well.
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