Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ebert Thoughts ‘13—Days of Heaven (1978) ****

PG, 98 min.
Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz, Robert J. Wilke, Jackie Shultis

I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s memoir “Life Itself”. In the chapter titled “My New Job”, in which he describes how he became the Chicago Sun Times film critic, he claims that one of the main aspects of a movie that appeals to him is the goodness of the characters. He claims that even Hannibal Lecter is a good person underneath all his psychosis. In “The Silence of the Lambs” he helps the police capture other serial killers because they disgust him. He just can’t control his own psychosis. So considering this notion, I’ve decided to examine several of this year’s Ebertfest films by looking at the good qualities of the characters in them.

In Terrence Malick’s ethereal second film “Days of Heaven”, which opened this year’s Ebertfest, we are given not one, but three good characters at the heart of the conflict, a conflict with each other. The young girl, Linda, narrates the story. She is neither good nor bad. She is the window into this tragic love triangle. Linda, Bill and his lover, Abby, are migrant workers during the depression. They find their way to a wheat farm in Texas. Bill and Abby claim to be brother and sister. The Farmer falls for Abby at first sight. Bill sees an opportunity to end their hard life of traveling for backbreaking labor if Abby pretends to love the Farmer, who is terminally ill. He’s been given a year to live, but he doesn’t die.

The three of them are all good people. Bill only wants to give Abby a life they can only dream of. He’s a hothead and a con man, but he loves her, and he wants better for her. Abby truly loves Bill, but after spending time with the farmer, she begins to love him as well. She is purely good, but has made a choice that has created a bad situation. The Farmer doesn’t want to die alone, so he doesn’t see the deception that his most trusted advisors do. These are three good people trying to live lives they feel they deserve. There is no malicious intent in any of their hearts. Their tragedy is inevitable. You want them all to have what they want, because they are good; but this cannot end well for any of them.

Ebert is one of the few critics to give great praise to Malick’s most recent film, “To the Wonder”. Perhaps this is because Malick is still working on the world of people who are good, but their goodness is tested by the environment and situations in which they find themselves. Many critics are growing weary of Malick’s ethereal collage, non-plot oriented approach to his cinema. Ebert continued to see the good in Malick’s tortured characters, and it was still a wonder to him.

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