The Criterion Collection has released Days of Heaven (1978; dir. Terrence Malick) in 4K as part of a 4K UHD/Blu-ray set; and I’m still not sure it’s the classic so many others deem it as.
But Lord, it’s a sight to behold. The cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is breathtaking.
Malick tells a simple story about Midwest laborers in the mid-1910s. On the lam after killing his boss at a steel mill, Bill (Richard Gere), his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), and his little sister (Linda Manz) hop a train to the Texas Panhandle. There, passing Abby off as his sibling, Bill hatches a plan to have her woo a rich, dying farmer (Sam Shepard). Ah, but the days of heaven are numbered. Carelessness, jealousy, and a storm of locusts could lay waste to the best of plans.
The filmmakers give us a feast of images to hang on the wall. Using the magic hour, so many gorgeous shots of fields of grain, of harvesters, whelm us—seem to want to impart some deeper meaning among them. Chiefly, that all this natural, earthly beauty is wasted on (is so much bigger than) us mere mortals, with our petty schemes and greed.
Malick underplays the inherent melodrama of the story. Rarely does he punch up moments of ecstasy or violence in ways familiar to us. Instead, he keeps the dialogue sparse. Manz provides a mostly improvised voiceover that may comment at angles to the events on screen. It grounds us in an observant child’s raw but (too?) enigmatic remembrance. Her attitude borders on indifference, on unknowing. She speaks of things she understands too well to explore further, and others she may never comprehend.
All this amounts to a filmic experience I admire and recommend. Besides the awe-inducing cinematography, there’s a wistful Ennio Morricone score that gives the movie an extra residue, both childlike and forlorn. The actors—a set of faces that convey depths of emotion, without trying too hard—register. Gere and Adams are fine, doomed lovers. With a wiry sense of inner tension, Shepard makes a powerful impression. Manz, in one of her few appearances in a film, is extraordinary. The camera loves her. And her gaze possesses a fiery edge that never feels strained or false.
Years before, I had written off Days of Heaven as lacking substance and enjoyment. The new Criterion 4K release has deepened my appreciation for it. Still. Is it ‘just’ a tone poem? Oblique, pretentious folderol with no purpose? Since the movie is easy to swoon over, I am open to Malick’s intentions. But what are they? Is he captivated by the majesty and darkness that surrounds our existence? Life, as Days of Heaven implies, is a dream—both beautiful and shadowed. Fleeting, and given to the divine.
Would that we hold on to its glory?
No, we get in the way.
Malick, camera operator John Bailey, and editor Billy Weber supervised and approved the 4K transfer in the Criterion set. Presented in Dolby Vision HDR, the 4K comes with 5.1 surround DTS-HD audio. The Blu-ray has both the film and a host of special features: audio commentary by Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden; an audio interview with Gere; and interviews with Baily, Wexler, and Shepard. In the accompanying booklet, there’s an essay by critic Adrian Martin and a chapter from Almendros’s autobiography.