You know this film will be beautiful. You will expect something from its reputation, from it’s director and from the fact that the film was famously shot almost entirely in the magic hour of dawn and dusk. This was Terence Malick’s second film and his last for 20 years and, until The Tree of Life, it was the work known as the visionary director’s most striking. You know this film will be beautiful but will it be anything else?
It starts with photographs. A series of images from American history. The mythic age of late 19th and early 20th century America. They are powerful, transporting, and sometimes famous. Yet when the images start to move, and you see Bill in a clumsy fight in a Chicago Steel factory, all handheld camera and low angles, you feel slightly cheated. You wonder whether it is photography, rather than cinema that deserves your fealty. This feeling remains, until Bill (Richard Gere), Abby (Brooke Adams) and Linda (Linda Manz) leave Chicago and head out by train into Terrence Malick’s wilderness. The light improves and then, in a sudden panel of bright blue, a train crosses high across an endless chasm on it’s way to Texas, and you know you are in the hands of a photographic master.
The visual scale of the film is immense; rolling seas of endless gold surmounted by an eaved manor house that would make Hayao Miyazaki weep. Images of workers passing through a giant fenceless gate, dwarf anything that Peter Jackson’s conjured for Middle Earth. These images are precise. Masses of people, in acres of space, perfectly placed. The captured sublimity of a photographic instant but moving, living. Yet, as you admire their continued, constructed, perfection, you start to sense their unreality; a perfection of placement that last too long. You start to lose a sense of history and gain one of fairy tale, of fable.
This is a cinematographer’s film. Shot almost completely without lights, it achieves visual perfection again and again, shot after shot, using little more than natural light. A great lesson for filmmakers with access to more time than money. By shooting at the magic hour there is immediately a sense of time in the film, of long days of toil that finish at sunset. It delivers more than just an aesthetic. It puts us in a time and place more attuned to nature and it’s rhythms, something that seems to reoccur in Malick’s work. NÃ©stor Almendros, the cinematographer, said that Malick wanted “a very visual movie. The story would be told through visuals. Very few people really want to give that priority to image. Usually the director gives priority to the actors and the story, but here the story was told through images”. This sense of the overriding importance of the visual, which would be natural in photography, threatens imbalance in film, a medium that extends in time and admits of sound and of psychology.
The first victim of this all-consuming attention to the visual dimension is the story. The plot of the film rests on the fact that, for no intelligible reason, Bill and Abby have told everyone that they are brother and sister. The entire film is based around this decision, a decision that makes no sense from the perspective of the characters and benefits only the plot. It could, and has been, argued that, given the film’s voice over, the narrative perspective of the film is Linda’s, and she would have known little of their reasons. Given that the camera shows little concern with her perspective, and that this is a camera’s film, you feel that the narrative viewpoint is retro-fitted. It is not due to the position of the narrator that the reason for this crucial decision remains unclear. In fact the voice over was added late in the editing process, after a lot of the original dialogue was lost. The question remains then, why is the story so undermined? Why leave it so weak?
The answer is that the story is not Malick’s primary concern. The story is a sketch only, an outline upon which to photograph images. It is only when that is the case that the casting makes sense. Richard Gere, as Bill, is unremittingly unconvincing. Facial immobile, pretty and ever-clean, even through days of toil, there is not a single moment in which he is not too perfect, too plastic. Brooke Adams (Abby) is little better, although her unconventional sad-faced beauty is interesting. The only thing that suggests that Linda (Linda Manz), the narrator, is not straight out of stage school is the scar on her face.
This is a film cast with only the look in mind, these faces are to be players on a canvas, not living, breathing, people. Most of the characters in the film are not even named parts. Sam Shepard plays one of the most crucial and nuanced characters in the film and through an excellent performance he becomes one of the most well realised characters. In the credits, he is listed simply as The Farmer. It seems to be more important that these characters look a certain way, than they are believed. There are some good performances here (Sam Shepard as The Farmer and Robert J Wilke as The Farm Foreman both deliver a lot with a little) but their faces are just as interesting as the others and you get the feeling that the way these two act is seen by Malick, as simply a bonus, a welcome addition to the way they look.
One of the most surprising things you learn about this incredibly visually-centred film is that not only was NÃ©stor Almendros poorly sighted when he made this movie but also, due to massive overruns, he didn’t stay on the production throughout. Forced to leave the project due to other commitments, Almendros chose Haskell Weskler to take over from him. Weskler is responsible for those opening handheld shots (he used a Panaflex and diffusion, neither of which were used by Almendros) that start the film and disappoint. It is doubtful these are the only shots that he was responsible for and it would be very interesting to know exactly who shot which shots.
Whoever conceived of the ‘locust sequence’ should be commended, for in this section we are presented with one of the most striking shots in cinema. The shot is of men, milling helpless as locusts rise skywards in their thousands. It is a beautiful moment and kind of incredible. They achieved the effect by throwing thousands of peanut shells from a helicopter as the men walked backwards in the dusk, they reversed the film and when it plays the effect is uncanny.
The film took a long time to make. The schedule was very loose, as it no doubt needed to be, in order to capture the light. It is likely that the looseness of the schedule directly contributed to a particularly long edit. Apparently Richard Brooks cast Richard Gere in Looking for Mr Goodbar after seeing rushes from Days of Heaven. Brooks shot, edited and released Looking for Mr Goodbar before Malick had even completed his edit of Days of Heaven (it was near the end of this long editing process that Linda’s voiceover was added). The final result though, is a film of almost unremitting strikingness; golden-lit and gilded like Malick’s own reputation.
Are images enough? Can cinema, be like photography, and reduce itself almost to the visual? There is sound in the film, a good score by Ennio Morricone but it is not really woven into the film and the sound design leaves much to be desired.
There is story and character, but these things are not considered enough to balance the film, no matter how well the final scene between Bill and The Farmer is handled. In the end though, in the sheer scale and beauty of the images that imbalance doesn’t matter. These moving images make up for it. The film is a visual masterpiece, a subset of style over substance that speaks particularly of visual style. It paints a majestically mythic vision of America and drapes it’s images over a skeleton of a story. A story that is a quick sketch, just enough of an outline to paint a picture of the world upon it.
What it tells you as a filmmaker, is that beauty is all you need, that scale matters and that the magic hour is worth the wait.