According to John Travolta (who was originally cast and probably wasn’t just making it up–as it was pre-Battlefield Earth and he was still somewhat legitimate), when ABC wouldn’t let him out of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” contract, Malick was forced to cast Richard Gere and shredded the majority of Days of Heaven‘s screenplay, instead going with a far more lyrical approach. It’s so lyrical–and here’s why I believe Travolta–Malick frequently mutes out Gere’s dialogue. Given how terrible Gere’s performance–there aren’t any good performances from the film’s principals–it’s a blessing. But Gere still doesn’t act well on mute.
Days of Heaven is a complete mess. It’s a gorgeous film, but it feels like watching a movie on late night television, falling asleep for some of it, waking up, some of the dialogue getting incorporated into the catnap dreams. I haven’t seen it in ten years, but I’m really glad I didn’t go out and buy the new Criterion release, because there’s hardly anything to see here.
It’s clear–from the opening titles no less–Malick made this film in the editing room. There’s some obviously ad-libbed material, which tends to be poor–the film’s final scene, with Jackie Shultis visibly grasping for something, breaks the camel’s back. Malick gets a good performance out of Robert J. Wilke, but he’s about it. The rest seem like they’re being put in front of the camera without knowing what do to–and they didn’t. Malick shot “miles of film,” intending to figure out what to do with it in post-production. He didn’t hire actors capable of working in such a manner–Gere’s a joke in this film, it’s impossible to imagine, seeing Days of Heaven, he’d ever turn in reasonable work. Brooke Adams is better, but doesn’t seem aware her character is a bad person. Days of Heaven‘s strange in Malick’s approach to morality–whereas Badlands recognized it, challenged the viewer to interact with the film while considering it, Heaven‘s oblivious. No one in the film is particularly likable and none of them are worth spending ninety minutes with. Sam Shepard’s a little better, but he’s not any good. Malick obviously cast Linda Manz because of her voice, which is distinctive. She can’t deliver lines well with it, but whatever.
If there’s a solid, artistic impetus to Days of Heaven, it’s not visible in the film. It’s such a beautiful film–until the end, which lacks any personality–it’s impossible not to appreciate Malick’s talent. Billy Weber’s editing is astounding, the photography from Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is amazing. Ennio Morricone’s music is a disaster, as it clearly tries to imply a different film.
Malick shifts the film’s focus towards the end, turning it on its head. He insinuates a lot of metaphor but it’s all baseless and the last twenty minutes of the film play terrible. The film’s exhausting, never feeling like Malick did anything but put something–anything–out in order to fulfill his contract. What’s worst about Days of Heaven is Manz’s narration. After Malick did that brilliant, innovative, singular narration work in Badlands, he uses utterly standard expository narration here.
It’s an incredible disappointment.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler; edited by Billy Weber; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Bert Schneider and Harold Schneider; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Richard Gere (Bill), Brooke Adams (Abby), Sam Shepard (The Farmer), Linda Manz (Linda), Robert J. Wilke (The Farm Foreman), Jackie Shultis (Linda’s Friend), Stuart Margolin (Mill Foreman), Timothy Scott (Harvest Hand), Gene Bell (Dancer), Doug Kershaw (Fiddler), Richard Libertini (Vaudeville Leader), Frenchie Lemond (Vaudeville Wrestler) and Sahbra Markus (Vaudeville Dancer).