Sam Shepard did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying the farmer in Days of Heaven.
Sam Shepard plays the rich farmer who the exiles go to work for. The farmer mostly stands at a distance from his workers although he gets closer to Abby after Bill overhears that the farmer is dying. Although Badlands was as much a showcase for Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen as it was for Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven begins and ends with Malick. Every second of the film belongs to Malick, and though there is not anything wrong with the performances they are very much part of the canvas. The performances simply don't stand out and even the biggest emotional scenes tend to be overshadowed by something that Malick is doing.
Sam Shepard barely has any lines as the farmer, in fact he makes the man with no name look like Tuco. For most of the film he is someone at a distance who is usually observing or being observed by someone else. Shepard does not have a lot to work with luckily, as he later showed in The Right Stuff, has a compelling screen presence even when he says very little. The character arc for the farmer is pretty simple. He is at a distance from everyone, he falls in love with Abby, then he becomes jealous and suspicious over the fact that Abby and Billy are clearly not brother and sister.
Every step of the farmer's story is told mainly through just silent reactions by Shepard and they do work. Shepard has a reserved but expressive quality to his face that really does well to convey everything that the farmer is going through. Shepard always makes the farmer an interesting enigma, and there is something rather powerful about all his emotions through the simple truth that Shepard gives them in his performance. Shepard often is just like the other actors, by being just part of the images of the film, but Shepard does stand out on his own, as there just is something about his face that suggests something more.
Shepard's performance is a solid performance but it never does break free of the confines created by Malick's style. Among the cast though Shepard proves the most able to thrive within Malick's vision as he has the necessary qualities, that would be fitting to a great silent actor, to make the farmer more then just an image even if the farmer is mostly used as an image. Shepard makes the farmer an intriguing character with the little he does have, and he made me wish the farmer went beyond just being just well the nameless farmer. This is definitely a good performance, but the restrictions set upon it by Malick do keep it from being a great one.