What do you do after you’ve made both the biggest and most personal movie of your career, one that draws on intimate autobiographical details while spanning nothing less than whole of the cosmos and time itself? That’s been the question for Terrence Malick since his 2011 film Tree of Life, a stunning achievement that at once assumes the most limited possible perspective — the heartland, mid-20th century coming-of-age experiences of a boy with more than a little in common with Malick — and the broadest, pulling back to consider how God might view the universe. It’s a tough act to follow, to say the least.
For Malick, the answer has been to stay busy. His latest, Knight of Cups, is one of four known projects he’s been working on in Tree of Life‘s wake, arriving three years after To the Wonder and ahead of Voyage of Time, a long-in-the-works experimental documentary, and Weightless, reputedly a love story set against the Austin music scene (and one that’s led to some sightings of the publicity-averse director at SXSW).
Like To the Wonder, Knight of Cups keeps the focus tight, here following Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter, as he drifts through modern Hollywood. Malick treats the town as a kind of moral morass, a place of excess and shallowness, one whose material abundance blinds its residents to their higher calling. Or at least that’s Rick’s experience, as best as we can discern. In typical Malick fashion, Knight of Cups‘ plotting remains opaque. Rick’s a screenwriter and no stranger to bacchanalian excess, but his time in L.A. hasn’t completely muffled his conscience. We hear others pressuring him to make artistic choices that clearly go against his better judgment, glimpse scenes from a tortured family life and a failed marriage, and see the yearning in his eyes as he cycles through affairs with various women. Malick divides the film into eight sections with discrete concerns derived from tarot cards, but a bit of Rick’s voiceover establishes the guiding theme early on: “Where did I go wrong?”