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This Terrence Malick film from 1978 is one of those films of Impending Doom. You know the sort: you can see the characters make small and large decisions that lead them down the path to certain disaster all without thinking that decision is the one that will destroy them. (Of course it isn't - it's the cumulative effect that gets you.) It's also remarkably beautiful with far more shots of corn than any film I've ever seen (or probably any film should have). But I will go so far as to say that those are the loveliest shots of corn fields ever made.

The story is pretty simple: in 1916 three working class people go on the run after the guy (Bill) accidentally kills his foreman in Chicago. He brings his little sister (Linda) and girlfriend (Abby) with him, but they pretend that Abby is his sister to avoid awkward questions. They end up as migrant workers on the farm of a wealthy man in the Texas Panhandle. (To my shame I thought that was the bit down the end, so kept wondering why all the corn until I looked it up. Don't blame me! I'm not from North America! I still have problems finding Idaho on a map!) The owner is dying and - I bet you could all see this coming - falls in love with Abby. Cue inevitable disaster + plague of locusts. No, really there is a plague of locusts. I thought that was a little much, especially with the fire and all the rest, but there you go. I don't direct films, so what do I know?

What I liked was that none of the people in this film - despite the fact that they all do terrible things - are portrayed as inherently bad. Bill and Abby lie to the farmer about their relationship and try to con him, but their lives are so wretched and the power imbalance between them and the farmer is so extreme, that you can't really blame them. The farmer is a decent enough guy, but his workers are still expendable and worked like animals. The craggy foreman is suspicious and craggy (very craggy) but he genuinely cares for his employer.

The two people I felt most for were Abby and the sister. When the farmer (he doesn't get a name, which must have made some things awkward) asks Abby to stay on and work over the winter, Bill urges her to do - and the look on her face when Bill tells her they should stay and see 'what happens' and she realizes for the first time that he is so sick of the way they live he'd essentially whore her out, is heartbreaking. The second time she has such a look is when he pushes her to accept the farmer's proposal and her reply is that in Chicago she held out a long time despite having had her chances with rich men; you realise that her only real currency is herself as otherwise all of these people at the bottom of the barrel are all the same to those at the top - she just refused to admit it until now. (The film takes a very unromantic view of the options available to the poor.)

The younger sister is the narrator. Normally I hate narrated films as you can tell the person is just reading from a script, but this sounds like a teenager just telling a story, trying to make sense of all that these adults are doing to each other. As the one totally uninvolved in all of this, you feel the most for her, though she has no self-pity at all.

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August 2011

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