Monday, 7 June 2010

You'd Give Him A Flower, He'd Keep It Forever.

Most people know Terrence Malick for his prolific output. 


Oh, wait. He's released, what, four films in 37 years. I must have been thinking of someone else. What Malick has going for him, however, is that they're all pretty much fantastic (though I haven't seen his most recent release, The New World, which I've heard mixed reviews ranging from average to excellent - must get on that.) In 1978 he released his second feature Days Of Heaven, five years after his debut Badlands and a solid twenty years before his next film, the acclaimed The Thin Red Line.

Days Of Heaven is about a man, Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz.) Bill is working as a manual labourer in Chicago when he knocks down a supervisor, killing him. He flees with Abby and Linda, with Bill and Abby masquerading as siblings in order to not attract gossip. They end up in Texas working as seasonal labourers on a farm owned by a gentle, unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard.) The farmer is sickly though attractive, dying of an unspecified disease, and when he falls for Abby, Bill encourages her to enter into a relationship such that they can receive his inheritance when he passes, all the while remaining on the property as her brother. The ruse, however, is soon discovered, not helped by the fact that the farmer does not seem to be deteriorating. Eventually, the farmer confronts Bill, who kills the farmer in self-defense, before being killed by the police in a manhunt. The film ends with Abby dropping Linda in an orphanage and locomoting it out of there.

This is thematically a very simple, gentle film. It is incredibly striking, however. Thinking back to it I remember the colours, the pictures, the images. Néstor Almendros was credited as sole cinematographer, though Haskell Wexler took over when the film ran well over schedule and contentiously missed out on credit and Oscar despite claiming to have shot over half of what ended up on screen. Almendros (and Wexler), and Malick, shot the film using very little artificial light, and a great deal of the film was shot at magic hour, whether internal or external, meaning the film has an incredible golden tone to it that burns itself into your memory and never leaves. Every frame is like a painting, a beautiful painting. And there is not a great deal of spoken dialogue - the narrative is primarily driven by the narration from the young Linda, piecing together elements that might need explaining. But for the most part the images on screen speak almost entirely for themselves, and they do it simply, subtly and effectively.

The performances are very good all round, though Shepard stood out for his upright, seemingly uptight but ultimately kind and caring employer. Manz also does terrifically in her precocious role. The score, by the one and only Ennio Morricone, is of course wonderful, lifting the film in its joyous simplicity and tranquility, soaring through the mundane, the happy, and the sad.

An excellent second outing from Malick, though watching his films always makes me cry 'more! more! more!' and I know I'm never going to get it. Well, I'll get The Tree Of Life at some stage in the next couple of years, presumably (it was meant to be out last year, but now has a vague '2010' release date), but he's not the kind of guy to churn out four films a decade. From some directors, you definitely wish for quality and quantity. Malick is one of those. 4.5 stars.

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