You know how people’s favorite albums depend in large part on when the person encountered the band or musician? If you listened to them from the beginning, the first album is going to hold a special place in your mind, and you’re willing to buy whatever they put out. If you hear a later album first, you might well go looking for all their previous work, but the album that introduced you to them is likely going to hold pride of place.
My introduction to Terrence Malick was probably The Thin Red Line, and it was unlike any war movie I’d ever seen. I need to revisit that and The Tree of Life; for now, though, A Hidden Life is my favorite. But that is just a way to say that it was a little weird going back to his first two films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).
Badlands, in particular, features a riveting Sissy Spacek, in one of her very first roles. But it took me a while to settle in, because my expectations were based on his later films. It is sort of an elegiac meditation on a specific kind of American aimlessness that issues in apathetic violence. Days of Heaven (which I enjoyed more) takes the individualistic aimlessness of Martin Sheen’s Kit and focuses it and embeds it in a more expansive parable of restlessness, the fear of death, and the fragility of earthly wealth.
Though Badlands has open landscapes and apparently idyllic settings, Days of Heaven has obvious precursors to the pastoral images of A Hidden Life. The images of wheat fields are the most obvious, along with those who work and rest in the fields. In these early films, Malick seems much less inclined than he is later to linger over the impressive landscapes, but they are there, though in quicker succession.
There is a Biblical scope to the story, which expands to fill every corner of its 94 minutes. The story of Bill and Abby takes significant cues (I would guess intentionally) from the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 (and its parallel in the life of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 26). The destruction and death that come to Sam Shepard’s farmer and the land are rooted in the lie that Bill and Abby tell. As much as God is either absent or hidden completely, it is God who brings plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt “because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” (Obviously, locusts are an evocative image of the other, later plagues in Egypt.)
Abby and Bill are not married, but it is their deceit (and Bill’s greed) that causes the fiery fulfillment on a small scale of Linda’s words at the beginning of the film. (I discovered that Linda’s voice-over narration was not in the script. Malick had her talk about various things, and then picked up various pieces for the narration.) Via Linda, we hear how “Ding-Dong” understands the end of the world. He told her that fire will consume everything, and that animals will run here and there and everywhere, some with wings on fire.
This is indeed what we see, but the other part of his interpretation was that the good would escape and go to heaven, while God refuses to hear the wicked. That raises the question of identifying the good and the evil in the story. If the film follows that interpretation, then both the farmer and Bill are the wicked, while Abby and Linda are the good. Finally, though, even Abby disappears from the story, as Linda walks along the railroad tracks, escaping with a girl she had met during the first harvest. While the story focuses on Bill and Abby and the farmer, it is told from Linda’s perspective and she remains the only innocent, though world-wise.
But we can’t help but fear for Linda in this world. The “days of heaven”—of living a comfortable lie under the pretense of false relationships—are clearly numbered as long as people (read: sinners) are involved. The pastoral life of honest hard work in wide open spaces is being erased by the inevitable march of progress and technology—which is not a mechanical process, but a human one. Here the agricultural life close to the soil is threatened by those who are restless within it, just as that life is threatened by totalitarianism in A Hidden Life. But the responses in either film are different. In Days of Heaven, Bill is constantly looking to escape to a wealthier and more comfortable existence—saving his life in order to lose it—while Franz in A Hidden Life gives up his own life in order to save himself and the world in which he lives with his family.
In a 1979 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde (Google Translate does a pretty good job making it readable; quoted here), Terrence Malick said that what he wanted to do with a movie like Days of Heaven was to re-create the disappearing open places of America, spaces “where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists – and justice – where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. … For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more.”
That’s Abby’s goal, from Linda’s perspective, and the future seems to open up as Abby hops the train, and Linda walks along the same tracks to whatever may come. Bill can neither achieve it, nor be saved, and the farmer lost his connection with the earth long before he lost his crops, but it is an interesting and provocative conception of film. Days of Heaven hints at it, and to me A Hidden Life is its 40-year culmination, as we are pointed beyond any hope within this creation, to a creation that offers exactly what would finally satisfy an easily and readily misplaced human longing.