June 25, 2020

Days of Heaven (1978)
Grade: 92/100

Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shephard

What it's about. A romantic triangle set in the Texas panhandle circa 1916 to 1917. Richard Gere is a moody laborer who travels with his tomboy tweener sister Linda Manz and his common-law wife Brooke Adams. Unable to keep a job in the city, he tries his luck on the large wheat farm of Sam Shepard, where he toils with dozens of other field hands.

For some reason, Gere and Adams tell everyone that they are brother and sister. Adams, a brunette hottie, catches the eye of Sam Shepard. He courts her despite the disapproval of elderly foreman Robert Wilke, who believe that Gere and Adams are con artists out to acquire his wealth.

He's half right. Adams loves both Gere and Shepard, but Gere sees an opportunity to enjoy a life of leisure instead of forever grinding out a meager living. A complication is that Shephard is terminally ill. He also has no family.

After the wedding, tensions rise between our three leads, since Gere continues to romance Adams on the sly. Following a disastrous fire that destroys the crop, a distraught Shepard confronts Gere with a gun, leading to a tragic ending.

How others will see it. Terrance Malick first created a stir in 1973 with Badlands, a retelling of the Charles Starkweather murder spree. That success was followed by Days of Heaven, an historical drama long on cinematography and short on screenplay. Filmed almost entirely at dawn and sunset, the movie won Best Cinematography at the 1979 Academy Awards, the only Oscar ever won by a Malick-directed film.

Also hailed was Ennio Morricone's score. It was the first Oscar nomination in the acclaimed career of the veteran Italian composer. At Cannes, Malick won Best Director, an unusual event at the eurocentric festival. But Days of Heaven received an unwanted prize from The Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, which singled out our narrator, Linda Manz, for Worst Fake Accent.

It would be more than 20 years until the perfectionist Malick made another movie, The Thin Red Line (1999). He has since directed films with greater frequency, to a lesser and lesser reception. It appears that the gift has flown.

But Days of Heaven remains well regarded at imdb.com. It has 50K user votes, and a fairly high user rating of 7.8 out of 10. U.S. viewers grade it higher (8.1) than non-U.S. screeners (7.7). The user reviews are predominantly highly favorable, with the cinematography first in line for praise. Although Gere, Adams, and Shephard later became moviestars, they were obscure at the time of production, as was the case for Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in Badlands.

Of course, the film has its haters, who dislike its sparse dialogue and slow pace. One complainer calls it "a great movie if you want to take a long nap and not miss anything."

How I felt about it. Richard Gere has made few good movies despite decades in the business. It turns out that his first consequential film role (Looking for Mr. Goodbar was released before, but made after, Days of Heaven) remained his best. Pretty Woman is a trifle compared to Days of Heaven.

As always in tragedies, we see the way out for the characters. Gere should keep his hands off Adams, however comely she may be, until Shephard is safely six feet under. But if this transpired, it would be an unsatisfying film. We expect a confrontation, and at long last we get it. Richard Gere is a heel, but you can hardly blame him for pressing Adams to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The problem is, he's not quite smart enough to pull it off, particularly with suspicious Robert Wilke keeping watch.