Directed by Terence Malick
Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Sheperd, Linda Manz
Cinematography by Néstor Almendros
Days of Heaven may be the most beautiful movie ever made.
What is it about? Wheat. How it was grown and harvested in the days before Word War I. But it's not a documentary. There's a very highly charged love triangle, brought across in many subtle ways. The dialog is sparse, and every word has meaning and power.
Gere and Adams portray, Bill and Abby, a couple traveling the country along with his sister Linda (Manz). They pretend to be brother and sister so they can share living quarters and are hired at Sheperd's farm to help out with the growing and harvesting.
The farmer is sick, maybe dying, and Bill and Abby hatch a plan where she marries him, waits for him to die, then will marry Bill. It all appears to go as planned -- maybe too well.
The story is told from Manz's point of view. Her character narrates in an unforgettable accent, and she sees the disaster coming. It is a great performance, but Manz's career went nowhere after this: a few small parts in forgettable movies and TV shows.
It's a slight story, told with glances and expression and mundane dialog that often means more than what it says. The line "That boy is a son to me," for instance, is spoken quietly as part of a two-sentence exchange. It may not sound like much, but in the context of the film, it's a dire warning.
The film won a best cinematography Oscar for Néstor Almendros. Every shot is just plain perfect visually, and there are many that stick in your mind afterwards. There is a long sequence leading up to an attack of locusts, for instance, where the images are breathtaking, yet, on the other hand, at no point does the beauty take away from the plot. As a matter of fact, it builds from the mundane to the terrifying, the images making it all the scarier. Some reports indicate that the great Haskell Wexler also was involved.
Terence Malick did an odd thing after directing the film: he left Hollywood for 20 years. This may be one reason a lot of actors consider him a genius. But the film itself is a fascinating look at a forgotten time of life, and shows that good storytelling can work with a minimum of dialog.