I think it would be easy to dismiss this movie. There is a small, simple plot - Bill and Abby, two lovers, travel to Texas for work with Bill's younger sister, Linda. Linda narrates the entire story, looking back on these past events. They do hard manual labor in a wealthy farmers field. One day, Bill overhears that the farmer is sick and doesn't have long to live. The farmer had been flirting with Abby, and Bill encourages her to marry him, so when he finally succumbs to his illness, they can finally be wealthy and happy. The farmer notices that Abby and Bill seem closer to each other than a brother and sister should. He is jealous. Bad things ensue.
In Ebert's essay, he writes that many people disliked that this movie didn't feel very emotional. He writes, "watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her, and its subject is the way that hope and cheer have been beaten down in her heart. We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end" (The Great Movies, 123). Linda doesn't really feel any emotion or passion for the love triangle she lives in. She feels a deep sadness, the kind that winds itself deep into your bones and you cannot be rid of. Not a sadness of a few bad events, but of an unfortunate life. The emotion is distant in this movie because the whole film is filtered through the lens of a girl who is telling a story that is not hers.
Maybe a more accurate description for this movie is not that it is a moving painting, it is a living poem. It is able to give you sensations and feelings just by being. It doesn't have a plot that you think about and try to figure out, you just sit back and let it wash over you. I can imagine that the images in this film stick with you for a lifetime. I noticed when I was watching this movie that much of it was shot during the infamous "magic hour", the time of day right when the last hour of sunlight is out and the most wonderful light exists. It doesn't last very long. I'm glad that the cinematographer and Malick insisted on shooting in this beautiful, natural light, though. It is pure delight to watch it.
If highly visual movies make you excited, you have to rent this and check it out. It is stunning. You won't regret it. If you are looking for plot and meaning that you can hold onto, skip this. The plot is secondary. Malick was a philosopher, so concrete meaning was not really what he wanted. He wanted questions like "What is it to exist?" It's not as though anyone will know. We can try. We can ponder it, as Malick has, watching this movie, since the question applies to it. Describing the film, Ebert writes, "This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us" (The Great Movies, 127). Like the best poems, it is the embodiment of an emotion, and like the best poems, it is truly incredible.
Ebert's Great Movie essay on Days of Heaven
Trailer that makes no sense for this movie