Having watched David Gordon Green's George Washington before this, I need not speculate over the long-reaching influence of Terrence Malick's pastoral 1978 drama about a love triangle in the pre-World War I Heartland. George Washington borrows heavily from this lauded masterpiece, from its narrative twists to its beautiful and evocative direction. Though some might call this emotionally muted, I found Days of Heaven to be a haunting portrait of people who have learned to live with pain, no matter how great.
In 1916, Bill (Richard Gere) gets into a fight at a steel mill with a co-worker and accidentally kills him. On the lam, he collects his young sister Linda (Linda Manz) and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and the three travel to Texas. In order to dispel any gossiping, Bill and Abby pose as siblings and the three of them hire on as workers for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard). One day Bill overhears that his boss is dying, and hatches a plan: Abby, whom the farmer loves, will marry him and collect the money from his will after he passes.
All of this sets up one meaty love triangle, but Malick presents it in a bizarre way. Instead of delving right into the middle of the intrigue, he pulls back and places the events of the story in the memoirs of Linda. Her rambling narration reads less like exposition and more like a commentary track, more reflection than clarification.
Filling the gaps between Linda's teasing and mysterious voice-over is the gorgeous cinematography from Néstor Almendros. Pause the film at just about any point and you'd have a painting worth hanging on your wall. Almendros, who was actually losing his sight during the shoot, managed to capture every scene perfectly using mostly natural lighting.
The lives of the three come undone in the final moments. Bill gets found out, and it all goes to hell in a hand basket. It gets so bad that we hear a glimmer, though nothing more, of pain in Linda's narration. She's a child who grew up knowing only hardship, and she knows how to bury it. You get the feeling that, among the two adults, she was the only one who knew how it could all end. But that doesn't prevent that tiny speck of torture escaping, and it's little details like this that make Days of Heaven more than merely a pretty picture.
When you get down to it, what is the point of the film? It purposefully breaks up its love triangle to pull focus from an interesting but contrived direction. Really it's a portrait of people learning how to deal with misfortunes. Though we cannot say for certain because we meet her in adolescence, we sense that Linda never had a childhood. This is her story, not Bill's, and it's more heartbreaking than Bill's machinations could ever be.