Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: Days of Heaven (1978)

My mistake. This one is also under two hours. I would hardly call it merciful, though.

Richard Gere, far too pretty to be the workin man his character is, loses his job (somehow) and rail-hops with his wife and their surrogate orphan daughter to Sam Shepard’s wheat field on the American plains. Some romance novel shit starts up pretty quickly. Or rather, slowly. And then the film runs out.

Filled with more jarring, rule-breaking cinematic abstractions than Badlands, we watch as a thin plot resolves itself in a far-too-long hour and a half. Between the critical action, we are given improvisations from both actors and director (save for the occasional well-choreographed shot of locusts swarming away from the farm). A good version colors the landscape with naturalistic, serendipitous performances. A bad version tends to stray outside the narrative, pad the runtime and become noticeably useless. Worse times, they transition between a logical contradiction and a claim for a salient contrast. A scene in particular shows this new family, most of whom come from abject poverty, joyfully throwing food at one another. This comes thirty minutes after a scene where Richard Gere wastes food defending his wife’s honor, the meaning of the sacrifice now ruined. A statement about their newfound prosperity bought by corrupt means? If it is, it came about by pure accident. But okay, the film might be saying that mankind’s state is completely transitory. It is then foolish in the first place to attach an efficient causation to the story. When Richard Gere returns to the farm in the third act, does he bring the plague of locusts with him or would it have happened regardless? Does our nature have an arbiter or doesn’t it? The Shakespearian overtones of the story say it does, Malick’s sensibilities as a director say it doesn’t.

In a response to the recent complaints about Malick’s Tree of Life, Days of Heaven proves that he has actually been making nature documentaries since the 1970’s. We the audience are an anthropological survey team, watching the rituals of a strange and alien culture that happens to be our own. Rituals that go on unexplained, without motivation or reason, and mostly without synthesis other than how we feel watching the construction of a massive failure of integrity. And we shouldn’t interfere. Well, I could have done that without seeing the film in the first place. “Let’s end this… here.”

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