Review of “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The New World” (2005)
A film review inspired by Ronald Chase, "Film: A Guide for Teens"
©Lucy Johns April 22, 2006
Director and screen writer Terrance Malick is American cinema’s poet of love and land. The joy of the one and the beauty of the other make the heart ache, especially since both are doomed. This profound romanticism is sharpened by a keen understanding of the work required to tame wilderness. The combination of emotional longing, evocative landscape and exacting realism creates an elegiac mood rare in films. Malick’s historical settings provide fine cover for a sensibility probably not happy in the modern world.
“Days of Heaven” is a peon to the marvels and menace of the American west. It opens with scenes of urban, industrial squalor worthy of Blake’s “satanic mills.” A worker has problems taking orders. If Richard Gere were more than a pretty face, this confrontation with authority might have revealed a character unworthy of exploitation. Since his acting ability is minimal, the firing that results is merely a plot device. He collects his woman and her younger sister to head out west. In the first of many extraordinary images in this film, they travel on the rooftop of a train covered with unpaying passengers who brave weather and danger in search of a better life. A huge wheat farm in Texas is the destination. Brooding purple mountains in the distance, a gloomy gothic great house straight out of Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper, a raucous crew of immigrant and native workers toiling from dawn to dusk, cavalcades of clattering machinery, a plague of insects, uncontrollable fire – these elements suffuse the ensuing love story with a grandeur and pathos the three stock characters could easily lack. Sam Shepard is type-cast as the laconic Westerner presiding over a vast enterprise, lonely as a king and soon the victim of a plot by the working couple. The romantic triangle – beautiful woman, handsome but feckless lover, a husband whose social standing brings unimaginable opportunities that compensate, ultimately, for lost passion – may be a Malick theme, since it recurs in his latest work, “The New World.”
Now we are three hundred years earlier, in the magnificent wilderness of aboriginal Virginia. A band of Englishmen lands to found Jamestown. Colin Farrell, a prisoner on the ship for insubordination, effortlessly conveys what Gere couldn’t, that he is too valuable to let go. Reprieved, his Captain John Smith sets out to scout the land and the natives, wary but hovering like “curious deer.” He is ridiculous in his medieval armor slogging through mangrove swamps but he is clever and handsome enough to inspire the timeless fable of the princess who spares the warrior from the wrath of her father and tribe. Malick is better served by his actors here. In addition to Farrell and several reliable (although not always understandable) British supporting players, he found Q’Orianka Kilcher, only 14 when she won the role for her radiantly expressive face and body. The princess’s name, Pocahontas, is never spoken, as though her true self can hardly be captured by only her birth name. Eventually she will become Rebecca, wife of a nobleman and guest of King James of England. Her introduction to these new people symbolizes Malick’s poignant vision of the momentous encounter between the old and new worlds. He imagines invaders and invaded treating each other as new wonders to be explored. This is Malick at his romantic best. Of course it wasn’t that way and in the film can’t last.
Malick’s skill as a story-teller finds singular expression in “Days of Heaven” in the person of a young narrator. This devise of voice-over commentary or explication can be cloying. Perhaps because the girl, Linda Manz, is not pretty, has a Brooklyn accent automatically associated with sarcasm, and actually has interesting things to say, this commentator is reminiscent of a Greek chorus, wiser than the protagonists but not immune to their trials. She adds details that aren’t necessary to move the action but enlarge on its significance, reporting, for example, that a deranged preacher on the train prophesies disasters that soon come to pass.
The two films transcend their predictable stories thanks to Malick’s absorption with the earthly surroundings. His settings work almost magically to deepen the experiences of his characters. Texas wheat fields radiate heat and insects and prickly dust that blanket all human activity within them. A riverine wilderness looks as untamable as the homeless fugitives camped in it. The scrawny wooden buildings in snow-bound Jamestown are as ragged as its starving inhabitants. The rigid gridlines of an English country park reflect the evolved sensibility – elegant and perfectly controlled – of the new lady of the manor. Malick loves the outdoors in all its wonder, even the locusts chewing on grain in footage from some naturalist’s collection that must post-date the action in his film by half a century. His cinematography is calculated as carefully as his story and sometimes even detracts. Sadness and loss may overwhelm his characters while the viewer revels in the beauty of the scene.
This tension is one signifier of memorable art. The medium and the message are not the same. Malick is an artist in the grand tradition that insists on the permanence of beauty despite the prevalence of human failings. These two films show him at his most committed.