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Film / Days of Heaven

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"Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you."

A 1978 romantic drama by Terrence Malick, in what would be his last feature before a twenty-year absence from filmmaking.

Set in 1916, a steelworker named Billy (Richard Gere) kills a foreman out of anger. Fearing reprisals, he runs away with his sister Linda (Linda Manz) and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). Pretending that Abby is his sister so as to avoid gossip, Billy and his crew hitch a train to the Texas panhandle, where they find work in the wheat fields of a rich but sick farmer (Sam Shepard). When the Farmer falls in love with Abby, Billy convinces her to marry him, thinking that he will die within the year and they can inherit his money. Of course, things don't work out quite so well...

Days of Heaven contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: In the opening scene, Billy is get into a fight with the factory foreman and hits him a little too hard, killing him. He, Abby, and Linda are forced to skip town.
  • Animal Motifs: The locusts symbolize a threat. The time when the swarm of locusts attacks the fields coincides with the moment when the Farmer realizes that Billy is Abby's lover and decides to kill him.
  • Art Imitates Art: Cinematographer Néstor Almendros drew inspiration for the film's look from artists like Johannes Vermeer and Edward Hopper and the work of early century photographers.
  • Becoming the Mask: Abby pretends to be attracted to the Farmer as part of a plan to inherit his fortune after his death, but then she falls in love with him.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: How Linda and another girl escape the boarding school where Abby deposited her at the end of the movie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Far more bitter than sweet. The farm has been completely desecrated by locusts and fire, Billy and the Farmer are dead, Abby leaves town seemingly as a way to cope with everything that's occurred, and Linda has been left alone at a boarding school. However, Linda seems to enjoy the place despite her initial hesitance, with the movie ending with her going off on a new adventure with a new friend she's made.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: A hallmark of Terrence Malick's career. Here there are loving closeups of stalks of wheat, crickets on stalks of wheat, frogs, shoots of wheat sprouting in time-lapse, etc.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: When the Farmer discovers that Billy is Abby's lover, he goes after him with a gun.
  • Down on the Farm: Rural Texas can have adultery, betrayal, and murder just as well as big cities can.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the opening scene Billy hits a man hard enough to accidentally kill him, establishing him as hot-headed and impulsive.
  • Everybody Smokes: Even Linda, Billy's younger sister.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Billy is framed this way when he's peering into Abby and the Farmer's bedroom, before he sneaks in and lures Abby out.
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: Linda's voiceovers both comment on what's happening storywise and veer off into philosophical rambles. Reportedly, Terrence Malick had Linda Manz improvise it while watching the film and saying whatever came to mind.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: The narrator is Linda, Billy's younger sister.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • We see in the opening scene Billy is capable of killing someone. It won't be the last.
    • At several points throughout the movie, grasshoppers are found in the fields and picked off. During the climax they become a swarm or locusts.
    • The fact that Linda is the one narrating the story hints that Billy and Abby are both gone by the end.
  • Gold Digger: Billy persuades Abby to accept the Farmer's marriage proposal, so she'll inherit all his money when he inevitably dies of his terminal illness.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: See the page quote.
    • Abby and Billy are willing to decieve the Farmer into marrying Abby in order to get his money, but only because they're desperately poor.
    • The Farmer is depicted as a nice guy who sincerely loves Abby, but is willing to shoot Billy once he finds out they're lovers.
  • Historical Domain Character: The train of Woodrow Wilson passes nearby at some point.
  • Hunting "Accident": During a hunting trip, Billy contemplates shooting the Farmer, but doesn't go through with it.
  • Improvised Weapon: Billy uses a screwdriver he was using to fix his motorbike to kill the Farmer.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used throughout the opening credits, as the camera pans and zooms over old-timey 1920s pictures.
  • Killing in Self-Defense: Billy stabs the Farmer with a screwdriver after he puts a gun to his neck.
  • Love Triangle: Abby falls in love with the Farmer for real but can't shake Billy. Tragedy ensues.
  • Marriage Before Romance: Abby falls for the Farmer after marrying him.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: After finding out Billy and Abby are lovers, the Farmer goes after Billy with a gun, intending to kill him.
  • No Name Given: The only named characters are Billy, Abby, and Linda.
  • Old Retainer: The Farm Foreman is devoted to his boss, and mentions he thinks of his like a son. At the end of the film he pursues Abby and Billy to get justice for his murder.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Happens a few times, particularly with Brooke Adam's Chicago accent.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Abby has two lovers: Billy, a poor worker, and the rich Farmer. At first, Abby is in love with Billy, but she marries the Farmer and then falls in love with him.
  • Romantic Fake–Real Turn: Abby pretends to be attracted to the Farmer as part of a plan to inherit his fortune after his death, but then she falls in love with him.
  • Sanity Slippage: The Farmer goes on one after realizing the truth about Abby and Billy.
  • Scenery Porn: Many arguments could be made that this is the most beautiful film ever shot.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: The Farmer vs. Billy.
  • Shout-Out: The family watch Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant on a home projector.
  • Steel Mill: The opening scene of the film takes place in a Chicago steel mill and surrounding slums.
  • The Swarm: At the climax of the film,aA swarm of locusts attacks the fields.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The main plot of Billy encouraging Abby to marry the Farmer so they can get his money is taken from Henry James' The Wings of the Dove.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The Farmer's doctor informs him he has maybe a year left to live.