In Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick explores the shifting nature of time, and how characters are propelled into action and movement because they are haunted by past decisions. Time is an uncertain entity, one that threatens to destroy those who slow their journey long enough to challenge it. The destructive nature of time drives the main characters, who are constantly relocating, desperate to finally settle down and establish a sense of permanence and order for the present.
The main characters in the film are inextricably bound to their relationships with time. Bill is waiting for his ‘big score’ that will never come. He is, physically and mentally, running from his past, where he got into a fight and killed a man at his previous job. He tells the owner of the land that he always had dreams of making a respectable living and creating a future for himself. He is dissatisfied with the life that he leads and feels like he is unable to advance, yet he is constantly moving around. “One day, you wake up, you find you’re not the smartest guy in the world. You’re never gonna come up with the big score. When I was growin’ up, I thought I really would.” Bill had an idealistic vision of what his future would be like, and now he is confined to the duties of a working class man who is always attempting to escape the consequences of his previous decisions.
The lonely, sick land owner is perhaps the most concrete example of fleeting time. He has maybe a year left to live, and wants someone with whom he can share what little time remains. He chooses Bill’s wife, Abby, who, because of Bill’s past, is subsequently always moving around and running away.
The editing is deliberately fleeting in order to create the feeling that these characters are temporary. Their existence is transient because they’ve allowed their past actions to determine this fate. Scenes slip away, like memories associated with the past as we slowly forget their existence and previous significance. Scenes also often overlap, fading into each other as we try to connect the pieces, some of them incomplete and interrupted.
Often in the film, characters are speaking and we cannot hear their dialogue over the sounds of nature, or, conversely, the sounds of technology. Noises from the wind overpower certain scenes, making it difficult for us to determine all of the characters’ exact words. The hum of the farming machinery obscures their interactions, distancing and separating them from each other and from us.
Days of Heaven accesses fragments of individuals’ lives in relation to time, and in those fragments, Malick evokes the pain of remembering distant but haunting experiences and memories. The landscapes and natural surroundings reveal more about these characters than traditional expository dialogue, which is often destroyed within the film as an example of nature’s physical forces. In this removal of traditional character interaction, characters remain ambiguous to each other and to the audience, existing only as apparitions and reminders of the past: a period of life they’ve so desperately tried to leave behind.