It took me a while to find my way in, and I wasn't sure how I felt about it. Eventually I started to really like what I was watching.
This film is more an experience of something than it is a story of something.
That puts it in a stark contrast with Badlands, Malick's first feature and the only other of his films I've seen. Where Badlands has a vibe but also a strong tale to tell, this is almost entirely vibe.
There is a story to be sure, but it's hardly anything special or revelatory. It's a skeleton on which Malick can hang his incredible sense of time and place. It's a vehicle for a type of cinema rarely seen.
This film tells the story of Bill and Abby, lovers pretending to be siblings, who flee 1916 Chicago for migrant farm work in the Texas panhandle. The owner of the farm, who is never given a name, falls in love with Abby, and Bill convinces her to take advantage of that love to try and take his money.
A love triangle develops and trouble ensues. As I said, hardly a unique or overly compelling story, but not a bad one either. It's a nice setup for what really matters, which is the feeling of the thing, rather than the meaning of the thing.
It's a fascinating way to construct a film. By concentrating on a feeling, the film can say anything to anyone. I can find something haunting in it; something about the nature of, well, nature, and our relationship to it.
You might find something completely different. The film succeeds by deliberately saying nothing, but providing a space for us to discover anything. It envelops the viewer in a foggy blanket of indistinct origin and substance.
By the time crazy events start to happen they have taken on an almost biblical feeling.
The other thing that helps that is how abstractly sketched these characters are. As I mentioned, we never even get a name for one of the main participants in the central love triangle. His name doesn't matter, because he's less of a person and more of an idea.
There are no real people here anyway. Things just sort of happen, we're shown more than told, and we're not shown much. It could devolve into a pretentious mess, and I'm sure for some people it does, but for me the whole thing was tied together by how beautiful it was.
Even without caring about the story, you can watch this and marvel at the visuals. What a treat.