Heavenly moments, if not entire days, are present in many of the films of the American writer and director Terrence Malick. Even the carnage wrought by the rampaging young lovers in his 1973 debut feature Badlands (1973) is interrupted now and again by carefree intervals. Can’t say it hasn’t been a ball, or words to that effect, says Kit into a Dictaphone as the end for the fugitive couple nears. Of course the irony of the sentiment given the circumstances could hardly be lost upon the viewer.
Bill (Richard Gere) in 1978’s Days of Heaven and his young love Abby (Brooke Adams) are not as hard pressed as Kit and Holly in Badlands though in masquerading as brother and sister while they roam America in 1916 they are running a risk. In part the subterfuge is forced upon them. They are from the Chicago slums and hot-headed Bill, having beaten up the foreman at the foundry where he worked, needs to be watchful. Also along for the ride is his younger, bona fide sister Linda, an observer, participant and narrator (through voice-over) of the events that unfold when the three arrive, along with a small battalion of impoverished individuals and families in the same position, to harvest the wheat crop of a wealthy Texan farmer (Sam Shephard).
The terminally ill farmer lives alone in a house overlooking the fields. Those he gives seasonal employment to may wonder about him – Bill and Abby openly do so – and the life he leads amid such opulence but in essence their hand to mouth existences are as removed from his as day is from night.
But Abby’s attractiveness stands out for the farmer across the divide. Taking a shine to her, he overcomes his timidity and invites her to stay on once the wheat harvest is completed. Abby eventually agrees, provided that her ‘brother’ Bill and Linda are included in the deal. Thus begins a bucolic existence for all four. Though unhappy to have to stand idly by and watch as another man woos his woman, Bill manages to put aside some of this feeling while he enjoys the trappings of the good life unexpectedly and suddenly opened up. One suspects he has never experienced the likes of it before.
The farmer has no cast-iron suspicions as to the reality of the situation for quite sometime and treats the three like family. The ‘rivals’ for Abby’s affection even share some genuinely convivial moments. Doubts, however, come into sharper focus not long after the farmer takes Abby’s hand in marriage. This ‘brother and sister’ appear to him to be too touchy-feely for a genuine brother and sister. Before the drama can escalate the increasingly dissatisfied Bill goes away, claiming that there are things he must attend to out east.
Then begins another sublime idyll, one at least the equal of what we have witnessed before. The farmer’s tender solicitation effectively wins Abby over. Initially, she has viewed her marriage to the rich man as an arrangement of convenience though she is less opportunist in outlook than the understandably wary and jealous Bill. But her heart has decided other and she intimates as much to the by this time almost resigned Bill upon his return to the farm. He is left to rue the mistake he made when he urged Abby to accept the farmer’s initial offer to stay. Accepting as he may have become, nature intervenes, upsetting the situation and ruining all chances of a happy ending for any of the four main protagonists. The ‘heavenly’ interludes have been brief.
There is little dialogue in Days of Heaven though Mr Malick’s propensity for voice-over shows through in the figure of Linda. Offscreen voice figures largely in later films by the same director too, but the word ‘thought-over’ might be the more appropriate one to use in considering them. Other, closely related, hallmarks of his style are also vividly glimpsed for the first time. It is simple to recognise natural-born artists of the cinema. They are adept at allowing picture and sound to tell their stories. The pictures they take in doing so are also often breathtakingly beautiful.
Days of Heaven develops the tendency of the director’s camera to eavesdrop on scenes. This will become considerably more marked in 2010’s The Tree of Life, which takes as its subject the life journey of Jack O’Brien, the eldest of three boys reared in a dislocated Texas family. The mother of the household represents the way of grace or love while the father symbolises nature. He tells his sons that their mother is ‘naive’. He ascribes to a dog eat dog view of the world. Jack becomes as conflicted in adulthood as he was as a child. Intercut scenes of the adult at home and work are underpinned with little or no dialogue. Ostensibly it is through the use of other devices such as framing, gesture and facial expression that the adult Jack’s struggle is depicted. Much is conveyed about all the characters in purely cinematic fashion.
This is a tempestuous, troubled environment leavened with transcendent joyful moments that all partake in. Authoritarian as he is, Jack’s father wants to love and be loved. But he deems it essential to drum his cynical worldview into his sons – for their own good. He has been raised in a school of hard knocks. To his credit, seeing the bulk of his dreams of life sadly unrealised, he ultimately apologises to the young Jack for having been so relentless and hard on him. Jack is just as astute and self-aware when he acknowledges to his father, I’m more like you than her (meaning his mother).
The camera as eavesdropper comes to the fore in The Tree of Life. Under the steady hand of Emmanuel Lubezki it frequently skirts the action rather like an onlooker or passer-by whose attention is momentarily waylaid. This has a pronounced distancing effect. As an ‘invisible’ and unacknowledged presence one will never be able to fully ‘participate’ in the action. But that distance without active participation brings with it something of great value: the ability to see clearly what is going on. The German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder achieved the same in his films. The Tree of Life is a deeply moving and human film, no more so than in the scenes toward the conclusion where the adult Jack discovers a sort of peace in his visualisation of a great coming together of the family on some ethereal ‘other side’.
Mr Malick advances further as a consummate artist of what might termed a cinema of beautiful detachment in his 2012 film To the Wonder. Neil (Ben Affleck) is caught between two loves, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Parisian who comes to the United States with her daughter Tatiana to be with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame from his hometown. His doubts about his life and loves are mirrored in the struggles being undergone by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest beset with a crisis of faith.
Purely and simply To the Wonder is a meditation upon love and the double-edged sword love may be. We witness both its power to transform and reinvent lives and the destruction love can leave in her wake when she dies. In some ways reminiscent of Mrs O’Brien in The Tree of Life, Marina is as spontaneous and loving as a little girl, the ideal companion to Tatiana, whose father lives in France. Neil, by comparison, is staid, a man uncomfortable with strong feelings. Nonetheless, when things are good between them and the child for whom they assume shared responsibility, they are very good. We are reminded of the best moments the O’Brien’s and the farmer and his three companions share in The Tree of Life and Days of Heaven respectively. This is human love at its empowering best.
But Tatiana will sound a note of warning about life in America. There’s something missing, she will say. That perceived lack is as pertinent to the girl’s mother as it is herself. Marina often gazes wide-eyed in wonder at what she sees around her in her new home of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Their legal stay in the country at an end, mother and daughter return to Europe. They have not resided long enough in the new and vast, if peculiarly empty, world to truly settle into the different rhythm of life.
For Marina the time apart from Neil is brief but long enough for him and Jane to reignite what they once had. Their ambrosial days together meet an abrupt, unhappy end and before long Neil finds himself back where he was with Marina. She tells him she would’ve stayed all along rather than go back to Paris – where she was unable to find her feet again – had he asked her to do so. But back together with her Neil is no more able to truly commit to Marina than he was the first time round. He loves her but is unable to fully align his life with hers.
In one of his addresses from the pulpit Father Quintana declares that nothing can be done for those unfortunates unable to commit or choose. This is his Achilles heel as much as it is Neil’s. In the poverty and heartache visible wherever he turns he has lost sight of God and the Christ he talks about daily. If all he can offer those suffering are words what use is he or his credo? He literally hides from one parishioner rather than reveal his own inadequacy. Neil becomes as distant in his relations with Marina and an inevitable breach opens up in the lives of both men.
The camera is as mobile, ‘distant’ and yet revelatory in To the Wonder as it was in Mr Malick’s previous two masterpieces about love. Pristine images sweep the viewer along and narrate the story in ways that render long verbal exchanges unnecessary. It is rare to see a trio of films that uplift the cinematic art form to the degree that Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder do. They are lessons in how to tell stories through image and sound, the natural domain of the art.