Days of Heaven more clearly illustrated the origin of ressentiment in social inequity than The Tree of Life. The movie begins with Bill (Richard Gere) beating or killing his boss at the foundry. He is then forced to flee with his lover Abby and kid sister Linda, into the hard scrabble life of itinerant farm handing. This primal deed precedes and typologically foretells the later attempt to acquire the farmer’s land and goods by having Abby marry him and then wait out his disease. The latter (major) event is thus a differential repetition, the contingent antitype, of the former (minor) one. Of course, the wily scheme goes awry: the farmer discovers the duplicity, confronts Bill, who kills him and who is himself then hunted down by the Law and killed. Abby is left with the farm, with the thing Bill believed would guarantee him emancipation from the realm of necessity, whereas Linda, Bill’s kid sister, runs away to an uncertain future.
It’s thus a tale in which all of the characters, with the possible exception of the kid sister, become what they were not nor ever supposed to be. A tale of the refusal of desire, of potentialities unfulfilled, on both sides of the social rift. Yet it’s a film that resists the temptation to take the explicit leap into the thought of resurrection, the thought, perhaps born of maddening grief or perhaps of true vision, that the arc of the universe must (must, damn it!) bend toward the merciful redemption from the prisonhouse of historical necessity. In this resistance, Days of Heaven proves to be a film far less amenable to a conservative attitude than The Tree of Life. One might say that the latter film is amenable to conservatism precisely because it is allegorical, because it dissembles its radical difference. Unfortunately, while an allegory can prescribe the direction of its interpretation, it still depends upon a viewer who can read. And there clearly are not too many of those around these days, especially informed readers of the ideology/ies of high modernism. Sometimes allegory can’t be avoided. I’d like to think that the here and now is still not one of those times. Malick could have composed a much bolder depiction of the creative advance into novelty than he did, one that more chastely contained its materialist messianism, that tilted less toward being a representation that reflected the world and more toward being a desiring machine that stoked it. Still, he’s making more of an effort than most slobs.