Days of Heaven: Criterion Collection Blu-ray ReviewApril 04, 2010
The follow up feature to his 1973 debut Badlands, Terrence Malick's 1978 drama Days of Heaven is set in the Texas Panhandle of the early 20th century. Bill (Richard Gere) is a hot-tempered young man on the run after the accidental murder of his boss in Chicago. Joining Bill on his flight is his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams). To avoid gossip and enhance their chances to obtain work, the duo pretend to be brother and sister. With Bill's real-life younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) in tow, the three wind up working on the property of a rich Texan landowner (Sam Shepard), who eventually falls for Abby. When Bill discovers that the landowner may be terminally ill, he persuades Abby to marry the rich farmer so they can inherit his wealth when he eventually passes away.
On the surface, Days of Heaven is deceptively simple. After all, how many times have we seen a love triangle used as a plot device? But if you are familiar with Terrence Malick's work, you know that the movie will be anything but simple. Heaven is more of an evocation of a long since gone time and place while examining the balance between nature and man and the old and new. Plot, character and dialogue may appear to be secondary, but they really are not. Malick, his superb production crew and excellent cast develop all three quite nicely, just not in the straightforward Hollywood manner you might expect.
Through the use of fragmented voiceover, snippets of character dialogue, a unique editing style from Malick regular Billy Weber and some of the finest cinematography ever put to film (courtesy of Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler), a cohesive plot is formed and presented. The film's leisurely pace and often abrupt editing style might drive certain viewers right up the wall. But for those with an open mind and patience, Days of Heaven will prove to be a rewarding cinematic experience. The film's impact might not hit you immediately, but it will the more you look back on it. Terrence Malick may not be the most prolific of filmmakers. In fact, he has only made two (The Thin Red Line and The New World) in the thirty-two years since this film. But when he does, it's unique. This is exactly what Days of Heaven is: a distinctive motion picture experience that serious fans of the medium should seek out and treasure.
Criterion's 1080p/AVC encode of Days of Heaven is a breathtaking beauty, one that easily captures the magnificence of Almendros and Wexler's photography. Given the film's age, the print is in near flawless condition, free of dirt and scratches (I did notice a line toward the end that ran down the left side of the screen). Film grain is present throughout without being distracting, while black levels, colors and picture detail are all quite strong. I noticed only the slightest trace of edge enhancement in one or two small spots, which is nothing to get worried about. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also quite surprising. Mostly a front-speaker affair (the surrounds come to life no more than once or twice during the 94-minute runtime), center-channel dialogue is clear if a bit limited due to the technology used to record it at the time. Left and right fronts cleanly convey music and effects, while bass makes it presence known in appropriate scenes. Outside of seeing this at a revival house in 70mm (good luck with that), this is a perfect way to experience the film.
Beyond the Feature
If you have been waiting to hear Terrence Malick talk about his movies, the actors he has worked with or what his films mean to him, well, you will just have to wait a little while longer. Uncle Terry is nowhere to be found in the supplemental material. That does not mean that the Criterion supplemental material for Heaven is lacking. In fact, they offer up quite a comprehensive look at the film's production and even manage to shed a little more light on the notoriously reclusive director. As with other Blu-ray releases from the company, the video-based supplements are presented in 1080i high definition as well as a timeline feature that displays the chapter titles of both the film and audio commentary.
Broken up into two sections, "Actors" and "Camera," the supplements include:
Actors: Sam Shepard (12:32): Recorded in 2002, this brief interview with the actor/playwright is an entertaining, informative insight into Days of Heaven, its meaning, working with Malick as well as working with Gere and Adams.
Actors: Richard Gere (21:52): Recorded in 2007, this audio interview with the actor is set to clips from the movie. Like Shepard's interview, Gere provides an interesting commentary on the film, the cast and crew and, of course, Malick.
Camera: John Bailey (20:26): The cinematographer looks back on his work as an assistant cameraman on Days of Heaven, discussing use of the at-the-time new style of camerawork and equipment, working alongside Almendros and Malick as well as the old school cinematographers vs. the new.
Camera: Haskell Wexler (11:34): Prefacing his brief interview by stating it would be "dishonesty in honesty," the 83-year old cinematographer discusses his shooting style, how he attempted to match Almendros' work when he took over shooting the film (Almendros had to leave to work on another film) while offering up praise for both Malick and Almendros. He also discusses the credit for his work on the film, and how his ego at one point got the best of him.
Feature-length Audio Commentary: If you cannot get Terrence Malick to chime in, why not get a quartet of other major production personnel? That is exactly what happens here with this audio commentary, recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2007. Editor Billy Weber, Art Director Jack Fisk, Costume Designer Patricia Norris and Casting Director Dianne Crittenden get together to provide production and technical tales, which makes for a solid substitution for the elusive Malick.
Booklet: An excellent 40-page color booklet features an essay by critic Adrian Martin as well as a chapter from Nestor Almendros' autobiography.
Days of Heaven is a beautiful but sad testament to a time gone by. Not just in regards to the Southwest of the early 20th century but also to a period of filmmaking where original ideas and experimental filmmaking was what drove the film industry, not special effects and marketing. One of the most beautiful motion pictures ever filmed, Days of Heaven draws you into its dreamlike world and challenges you to come to your own conclusions on what it is all about. Criterion's Blu-ray edition is a winner, featuring a superb transfer and supplements that enhance one's appreciation of the movie. If you are a fan of the movie and own a Blu-ray player, this is mandatory ownership.
- Shawn Fitzgerald
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Days of Heaven (Criterion Collection)
March 23, 2010
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio