Director Terrence Malick has now completed six feature-length films, and before this year is up, I’m determined to write on “Reel Christianity” about the only two left that I haven’t talked about. The other, besides today’s “Days of Heaven”, is his latest romantic drama “To the Wonder”, which I still haven’t seen, but I really want to one of these days. But “Days of Heaven”, his second film and his last before taking a break from filmmaking for twenty years, echoes with not just the discontinuous, image-driven style his later films are known for, but also with the tensions of a story out of the Old Testament.
The story takes place in Chicago in the early twentieth century, where Bill (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his employer at a steel mill. He has to flee across the country with his beloved Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister Linda (Linda Manz). Linda provides the narration for the film, and as we see the three on a train to Texas, she explains what Bill and Abby are doing:
LINDA: They told everybody they were brother and sister. My brother didn’t want nobody to know. You know how people are; you tell them something, they start talking.
The three end up at the Texas panhandle where they start doing work for a farmer (Sam Shepard) who is dying of some disease. He spots Abby working one day and falls in love, so Bill tells her to marry him so that the two of them can inherit all his money once he has passed away. So Abby develops a deeper relationship with the farmer, and the two of them eventually marry—as Bill can do nothing but watch and hope that the farmer dies soon.
But the farmer, instead of getting sicker, starts getting more and more healthy, and it becomes more and more frustrating to Bill. But as much as he tries to keep his cover posing as Abby’s brother, the farmer and his men start getting suspicious. Bill decides to leave for a time, and in the meantime, the farmer starts growing more with Abby and Linda. Soon, Abby finds herself in love with the farmer.
One day, after Bill returns, those on the farm start noticing something strange: locusts are suddenly appearing more and more in the house, in the barn, and on the wheat fields. The workers try to clear the locusts away, but damage is still done to the crops. During this time, the farmer angrily tries to kill Bill, and his rage ends up setting the crops on fire. The farmer goes back to his house, ties Abby up to a post on his porch, and sets out to find Bill again. He finds Bill the next morning, but Bill attacks and kills him, fleeing with Abby and Linda until the police find him later on and shoot him down in a river. After this, Abby sets off on her own and sends Linda to a boarding school.
“Days of Heaven” is a very good movie, though I’m not as much of it as I am of “Badlands” and especially “The Tree of Life”, but it still has a lot of the emotional drama that I’ve found in Terrence Malick’s other work. It’s a very interesting story of adultery, greed, and love told in a very unique setting, and it has a lot of spiritual undertones as well. Early on in the film, Linda narrates a little about a man she met once that foreshadows the darkness to follow in the film:
LINDA: He told me the whole earth is going up in flames. Flames will come outta here and there and they’ll just rise up. …People are gonna be screaming and hollering for help. See, the people that have been good, they’re gonna go to Heaven and escape all that fire. But if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear you; he don’t even hear you talking.
To me, this is a very dark, very worldly look at the end of the world, and the fire that the characters are surrounded by near the film’s third act can thus be connected to the end of the world as Bill, Abby, and Linda know it. But in the book of Genesis, there is a story that is hauntingly similar to Bill and Abby’s situation, although the characters in this Scripture passage are very different. It is the story of Abraham and Sarah.
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham heads with his wife Sarah to a region called Gerar, and he told people there that Sarah was actually his sister. He did this to protect Sarah and himself, for if the godless people there knew that God was with him, they might have killed him and ravaged Sarah. But when Abimelek the king of Gerar takes Sarah for himself, although he never goes near her, God intervenes and protects Abimelek from sinning. In return, Abimelek offers Abraham his land, and Abraham heals Abimelek and his family.
Though this story is quite different from “Days of Heaven”, the movie portrays (in my mind) what may have happened if God was not present with Abraham and Sarah. But because God revealed himself to them, they were saved. Even during that dark time in history, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God had a plan for his children. Later on, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham follows God’s commands and is about to kill his son when God intervenes again. An angel came down to Abraham and told him, “‘Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’” (Genesis 22:12)
My prayer for you today is that you would trust God to intervene in your life when he feels it is right, because for every moment of every day, he has a plan for you.