With the upcoming release of Tree of Life, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is having a Terrence Malick retrospective. We’ve been attending, and up until the release of Tree of Life (review on May 26), we’ll be reviewing and talking about his movies LACMA recently showed Days of Heaven, Malick’s second film, and the end of his filmmaking career for twenty years.

What Malick did in those twenty years is partly unknown. He had worked on a film called Q, wrote a version of the Jerry Lee Lewis bio-pic Great Balls of Fire, and tried adapting Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. That absence led people to assume him mad, and perhaps retired, and forced them to judge him as a director based on this film and Badlands. But what an impression he made.

Days of Heaven follows Richard Gere’s Bill as he looks for work across the country with his sister Linda (Linda Manz), and his lover Abby (Brooke Adams), who they pretend is also his sister. After getting a fight with a foreman, the family jumps on to a train, and goes about harvesting wheat. It’s there that Abby meets The Farmer (Sam Shepard), who falls for Abby and eventually asks to marry her. Abby is reticent, but Bill knows The Farmer is sick and should die soon. Abby marries The Farmer with an eye toward his money, but there are obvious tensions in that relationship, and Abby grows fond of her husband. Bill goes away, and comes back only for his return to be marked by an invasion of locusts. Such also leads up to violence between the two men.

Malick’s career is now divided by his two earlier works, and his later return to cinema. And what marks both earlier films is their relative brevity. Days of Heaven runs a compact 94 minutes, but it still feels epic (some would say slow) and in it are some of the best photographed vistas in the entirety of cinema. From shots of wheat fields dancing in the wind, to The Farmer’s house on the horizon, the legend of the film is that Malick shot the entire film during “magic hour” – the time where the sun is either going up or coming down, which creates a different kind of light. Malick also hated using standard lighting rigs, often shooting with natural light and nothing else. It may then make it counterintuitive that Days of Heaven has long been viewed as a textbook on great cinematography, and is featured heavily in the documentary Visions of Light. Much of the fillm was photographed by Nestor Almendros, though Haskell Wexler has an “additional photography” credit, and has suggested he shot over half of the film. Regardless, it’s one of the most beautiful films ever shot, and the natural lighting creates a sense of the past without going for the yellow or amber hues of – say – The Godfather. But just as essential is the score by Ennio Moriccone for evoking a sense of nostalgia.

Like Badlands, the film is narrated by one of its characters – this time its Linda Manz, but though her comments sometimes reflect on the story at hand, often she’ll just talk about some random event that happened to her. It sometimes works in counterbalance to what’s on screen, and it feels like Malick fell in love with Manz as a performer, and her out of left field sensibility – make it hard to know how many of her ramblings and conversations on screen were scripted. But that works for the film: Manz is completely authentic on screen.

As for the central narrative, the film almost functions as a silent film – its star crossed lovers and central jealousies need no dialogue, only looks and gestures. Like many of Malick’s later films, there’s a sense that this story is meant to be – like The New World and Tree of Life – about man’s banishment from Eden. The stars seem to be cast for their looks, and it’s worth noting that Richard Gere – an actor who’s often seen as simply a pretty boy – is excellent in the film, while Sheperd has the mixture of innocence and weathering.

The film is episodic by nature, and it covers a year on the farm. With the Manz narration and Malick’s godlike camerawork, the film is more impressionistic than immediate. The audience are more witnesses than participants, and the nature of the film keeps the viewer at a distance, but it’s all the better to appreciate what’s going on. It gives the story – even though it set in the early 20th century, a timeless feel.

Days of Heaven left many questions about where Malick would go next, and for a long time that answer was “nowhere.” But it also suggested an artist who was capable of greatness, and someone who was an absolute master of photography. The film is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Tree of Life opens Friday May 27, while LACMA will be showing The New World on May 20 with special guests.