The best way to preserve an exalted reputation is to keep a low, low profile. Some of the cinema's most celebrated directors, from Jean Vigo to Orson Welles to, er, Quentin Tarantino, have kept their reputations secure based on a small number of brilliant films. And so it is with Terrence Malick, a celebrated director who has made three films in 30 years, beginning with Badlands (1973) and most recently with The Thin Red Line (1998).
In 1978, however, Malick made Days of Heaven, the film that is probably his warmest and best-loved effort. In outline, the film seems lifted from the pulp-noir plots of James Cain or David Goodis. It's the Depression-era Midwest and two working-class lovers, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), decide to leave the dehumanizing industrial slums of Chicago in favor of the wide-open territories, with a young girl in tow.
Eventually the pair finds employment on a Texas farm that is owned by a (somewhat implausibly) wealthy gentleman (Sam Shepard). Things go well for a while, and much of the film's reputation rests with the glorious, Winslow Homer-like cinematography of Nestor Almendros, whose images of grain harvesting and pastoral serenity are indeed heavenly.
But there's a catch: Bill and Abby, though lovers, have found it easier to get by pretending to be brother and sister (is this where the White Stripes got their shtick?), so the farmer thinks nothing of proposing to Abby. When Bill and Abby realize the farmer is dying, they decide that she'll accept the proposal.
With its intimations of Eden before the Fall, and its evocative score by Ennio Morricone and Leo Kottke, Days of Heaven is a singularly unforgettable film.
Days of Heaven will screen at Madstone for one week, beginning Friday, Sept. 26. Following the 7:20 p.m. show on Friday, former News & Observer critic Todd Lothery will moderate a post-film discussion.