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?”
That’s not a new question, and reduced to its essence, Knight of Cups is a familiar mid-life crisis movie. Rick assesses his past and considers his missteps as he stares into a future that promises pleasure and comfort, but no chance for transcendence. (If there’s a model here, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, particularly in some star-packed party scenes set on the grounds of Antonio Banderas’ happily hedonistic character.) It’s a familiar story made unfamiliar by Malick’s approach, which gives the overworked subject the same lyrical heft he brought to WWII in The Thin Red Line and the colonization of America in The New World. In To the Wonder, Malick made the interior of a Wal-Mart seem like it contained unseen marvels to those with the eyes to see them. Here everything from the desolate parking lot behind a Las Vegas casino to the interior of a strip club gets a similar treatment. His camera, in the hands of the remarkable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, finds the divine in the mundane.
That makes Knight of Cups yet another beautiful Malick film, one filled with unforgettable images, poetic narration, and a sense that there are no directors today as in touch with film’s spiritual potential. Yet none of which rescues Knight of Cups from being the worst film Malick has ever made, one that bows under the weight placed upon it. A formula has crept into Malick’s recent work, one that worked beautifully in Tree of Life and less so ever since. It’s all here: the snippets of classical music taken from the Debussy-Pärt axis; the oblique, allusive voiceover; the impressionistic approach to narrative; the swirling camerawork; the frolicking… oh, so much frolicking!
This is, in other words, one for the Malick cultists. Dues-paying members of that cult, like this writer, will find much to value here, but I found myself wondering what, if anything, Malick newcomers would get out of this lovely, uninviting movie. The women Rick encounters — despite being played by everyone from Frieda Pinto to Natalie Portman — seem more like symbolic types than full-blooded characters. (Only Cate Blanchett, as Rick’s ex-wife, comes close to making her character flesh and blood.) Malick has long dealt in characters struggling to make connections, but for once the film seems to be struggling, too. It’s as close as the director has come to making a solipsistic movie. Bale’s soulful flintiness makes him an ideal Malick hero, but for as much time as we spend in his head, we don’t really get to know him. As always, Malick tugs on viewers to see beyond the world they know. Like never before, that sometimes doesn’t feel like an effort worth making.