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The Criterion Collection presents
"Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you."
DVD ReviewI’m sad to admit that it’s taken me a long time to become interested in Terrence Malick’s films. After reading pompous intellectual ramblings about his genius, I chose to avoid what appeared to be pretentious, boring movies. Last year, I finally took a chance and screened Days of Heaven—a historical drama that occurs in Texas immediately prior to World War I. My viewing began with feelings of dread, but those thoughts quickly disappeared after the first few stunning images. The opening credits effectively incorporate vintage-looking pictures, accompanied wonderfully by Camille Saint-Saens’ classic Carnival of the Animals. As the picture begins, Bill (Richard Gere) works in a Chicago steel mill and becomes involved in a nasty altercation over an unexplained issue. With very limited exposition, Malick introduces the environment and makes it compelling. The minimal dialogue works perfectly and brings greater weight to the events by avoiding unnecessary conversation.
Moments later, we join Bill, his love Abby (Brooke Adams), and his sister Linda (Linda Manz) as they look for work at a large Texas farm. The bright landscape offers dazzling views that make even their difficult situation enviable. Supported by lush photography from Nestor Almendros (with a major assist from Haskell Wexler), Malick uses a deliberate pace and reveals the countryside’s natural beauty. Almendros earned a well-deserved Oscar for Best Cinematography, and it’s impossible to argue with that award. I can imagine this film was a knockout on the big screen, but it remains striking when viewed at home. The nearly silent footage of the wheat harvest reveals more about the time period than pages of illustrative dialogue. As the industrialized world journeys west, the sparse and peaceful frontier is becoming a thing of the past. Malick conveys a mournful tone of this great loss while celebrating the scenery.
The primary story involves a love triangle between Bill, Abby, and the Farmer (Sam Shepard in his first role), who falsely believes that the other two are brother and sister. After a few brief conversations, the Farmer decides that he loves Abby and eventually asks her to marry him. She obviously feels passionate about Bill, but marriage promises a nice home and financial security. Also, an overheard conversation reveals that the Farmer only has a year to live, so the decision appears to be even more lucrative. Their choice is troubling yet understandable given their bleak prospects. The following year offers a calm, dreamy atmosphere for Bill, Abby, and Linda on the beautiful farm. Behind-the-scenes trysts do occur and could lead to disaster if revealed, but everything feels right for the trio. The Farmer appears to be a kind man, and the trio’s future appears bright. As the next year’s harvest looms, however, indications begin to appear that their serene world may face imminent destruction.
Some critics praised Days of Heaven’s photography but found shortcomings in the story. I totally disagree with this viewpoint. While the plot is fairly simple, the emotional conflicts between the characters are powerful and highly engaging. Malick’s original direction and the gorgeous cinematography are striking, but the film still needs strong characters to truly shine. Voiceover narration is often distracting, but Linda’s narration works perfectly and enhances the emotional weight. It feels like the warm reminiscing of an older woman that also may explain the camera’s perspective of each character. Few films have offered such consistently wondrous images, even when viewed on the small screen. Repeated viewings reveal even more depth within Malick’s vision and take us beyond the surface beauty. Certain moments stay in your mind for a long time and showcase the power of simplicity. The tension of the dramatic conflicts easily could have been overplayed, but the subtle approach delivers a lasting impression.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Days of Heaven’s main draw is the dramatic visual style, and this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer lives up to high expectations. The colors are much sharper than the previous DVD release, and the masterful lighting remains spellbinding. There’s also less grain this time around, which leads to an even more impressive presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: This disc also includes a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer that effectively conveys Ennio Morricone’s remarkable score. The natural sounds also come significantly from the rear speakers, which leads to a more immersive experience. Criterion deserves very high marks for both transfers, which enhance the film considerably.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Art Director Jack Fisk, Editor Billy Weber, Costume Designer Patricia Norris, and Casting Director Diane Crittenden
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Another notable extra provides interviews with Richard Gere and Sam Shepard, who both go well beyond simply praising the film. In a 20-minute audio interview, Gere describes the frustrating shoot and his concerns with the removal of most of the dialogue. However, he also recognizes Malick’s success and compliments his original talents. The actor may not have had a great time during filming, but his honest thoughts are refreshing. Shepard’s 12-minute video interview comes from 2002 and is the only supplement that was not created for this release. Unlike Gere, Shepard only briefly discusses his own experience and concentrates on the picture’s key themes.
Film-studies instructors might want to use the 20-minute interview with camera operator John Bailey, who worked with director of photography Nestor Alemendros. His material is pretty technical and discusses how to shoot using available light. It also gives intricate minutiae about the camera that goes beyond many viewers’ needs. However, I’d much rather see an intelligent discussion of these elements than the typical promotional fluff found on many DVD releases. The Camera section also contains an 11-minute discussion with Haskell Wexler, who filled in as the director of photography when Almendros had to leave for another picture. After opening with a strange disclaimer about this being the truth (if he can trust himself), Wexler gives details on lighting, Malick’s distinctive approach, and the intimacy of using a hand-held camera.
Finally, this release includes a 40-page booklet featuring a critical essay and a chapter from Alemendros’ autobiography. Adrian Martin’s On Earth As It Is in Heaven looks briefly at Malick’s history then discusses Days of Heaven’s key themes. The chapter Shooting Days of Heaven from Almendros provides complex details about the photography that should please camera junkies, but could overwhelm nearly everyone else. The piece covers film speed, the use of color, natural lighting, and much more.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsDays of Heaven reveals the amazing possibilities of the moving image. Terrence Malick didn’t make another film for 20 years, and he would still deserve serious recognition even if he’d never directed another picture. Throw out any preconceived notions you may have of the director and give this gripping film a chance. I can promise you won’t be disappointed by this exceptional Criterion release.
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