When playwright and actor Sam Shepard passed away last July at the age of seventy-three, his dear friend Patti Smith wrote a heart-wrenching remembrance of him for the New Yorker. In it, she mentioned a pair of tattoos they got in the seventies: a lightning bolt on her knee, and a crescent moon resting between his thumb and forefinger. A few days after his passing, I found myself revisiting Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven. About a quarter of the way, my breath was taken by a moment in which Shepard’s character—an ailing, wealthy man simply referred to as “the farmer”—sits on a log in the woods with his soon-to-be wife, Abbey (Brooke Adams). He tells her he loves her, places his hand on hers, and there it is, thin as a wisp and gone in an instant, that sly crescent moon.
The uncanniness of that glimpse reflects the mystery and delicacy of his performance. The first time we see him on-screen, it’s from afar. He’s standing in front of his mansion, a stately Victorian house on a tawny, grain-covered hill overlooking his miles of land. Bathed in an incandescent afternoon glow, it’s a scene reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. Shepard’s long, lean figure haunts the frame, and as the camera moves closer to him we see he’s neatly dressed in slacks and suspenders, eating an apple. Still yards away, we hear its crunch. Standing on his porch, he’s at a distance from the mass of workers descending on his fields, in an entirely different world.
Throughout the film, Shepard lingers somewhere outside of its center of gravity. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Days of Heaven is primarily focused on the relationship between a Chicago steelworker named Bill (Richard Gere), who has accidentally killed his supervisor, and his girlfriend, Abbey. With his little sister Linda (Linda Manz), the couple flee to the Texas panhandle, where they find work in the wheat fields owned by Shepard’s farmer, who, it turns out, is fatally ill. Soon, Abbey must choose between her beloved partner-in-crime and the new man who has given her a life she never dreamed of.
“It’s the way that Shepard manages to merge his natural charm and earthy sensuality with the character’s ethereal nature that makes him so enchanting to watch.”
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