Though set in West Texas during Woodrow Wilson's administration, Days Of Heaven really belongs to a more elemental place. Writer-director Terrence Malick tells a story of love, deceit, jealousy, and death that is, on the face of things, simplicity itself. His approach seems just as simple: The dialogue is minimal, and Malick's fixation on the natural surroundings sometimes threatens to overwhelm the plot and actors. A wren rivals star Richard Gere for screen time.
But it's Malick's particular genius to make viewers feel like they're seeing the world, with all its beauty and danger, for the first time. With echoes of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Abraham and Sarah, Gere and Brooke Adams play lovers who pose as brother and sister after fleeing Chicago when Gere accidentally kills a man during a workplace altercation. With Gere's younger sister (Linda Manz) in tow, they end up as migrant workers in the employ of rich farmer Sam Shepard. When Gere learns Shepard has only a year to live, he encourages Adams to marry him.
The plot suggests a windswept film noir, but Malick has something else in mind. Each of his four features tells a story of innocence and its loss. Shortly after Adams marries Shepard, she and Gere enjoy a lovers' midnight frolic in a nearby pond. Drinking wine from one of Shepard's glasses, Gere carelessly lets it drop from his hands. "Doesn't matter," Adams assures him, but a later image of the lost glass leaning against a rock and attracting the attention of curious fish says everything about the intensity of their violation.
About those images: Shot by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Days Of Heaven remains one of the most shockingly beautiful films ever made, but the pictures only tell part of the story. Manz narrates, alternating between childlike observations about the characters, fears of a looming apocalypse, and hopes for the future. She's an innocent trying to understand sin and death as if she's never considered them before, and remarkably, the film somehow makes her our surrogate, and makes all she sees of good and evil glow beneath the light of an unforgiving sun.
Key features: Audio interviews with Shepard and Gere (who still sounds a bit testy about all the dialogue scenes lost in editing) and a commentary with some key players, though not the reclusive Malick.