Actually, that’s not really accurate. Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven isn’t pretty – it’s beautiful. The cinematography has a grandeur that is breathtaking at times. There are films that you’d want to frame and hang on the wall, and all of Malick’s works have that quality.
What about the rest of the film, though? Does it just look good but is a waste of time otherwise? Apparently, Days of Heaven was criticised for its muted emotions. Indeed, we don’t get the extremes of passion that the love-triangle plot would suggest. No shouting and screaming, and even during the film’s scenes of violence there’s a certain distanced quality of defeat and resignation. Which I liked a lot, thuogh. So much emotion in films is melodrama, going to 11, but a) this isn’t necessarily true to life and b) I wouldn’t want this sort of emotional forte fortissimo in every film. Not every tragedy of jealousy should be Othello.
The protagonists in Days of Heaven seem so know from the first that real happiness is likely to be out of their reach, that the best they can hope for is a momentary reprieve from the dull despair, of poverty, of illness, of loneliness. Melodramatic passion is an indulgence none of them believe in. Their emotions, or at least their expression of their feelings, have been dulled by various kinds of deprivation.
This dullness is encapsulated neatly in the narration by the teenage character Linda. She’s a kindred spirit to Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Badlands, although without that character’s naive romantic imagination. As with Holly, nothing would seem to be quite real to Linda. Bad things happen, people die, that’s the way it is. No use crying about it. Fair or unfair doesn’t come into it.
I’m not sure I get the film’s ending, though. Although the narration’s focus lies with the lovers, we get a curious continuation of Linda’s story that ends abruptly. I’m certain there are film buffs who could explain the purpose of this not-really-epilogue to me. I could come up with a number of interpretations, but I’m not sure any of them would ring true. Perhaps I should just watch the film again, though, and become caught up in the sheer depth and width of the images all over.