You go into a Terrence Malick movie expecting a gorgeous collage of sound and image, but not necessarily the sight of a neon-lit strip club, a Caesars Palace pool party, or a fashion shoot where a model is told to pose like “a dirty f—ing housewife.” In other words, there’s something at once vividly familiar and strikingly different about “Knight of Cups,” a feverish plunge into the toxic cloud of decadence swirling around a Los Angeles screenwriter gone to seed. Having made contemporary American life seem both recognizable and alien in “To the Wonder,” Malick now extends that film’s tender romantic ballet into a corrosive critique of Hollywood hedonism — a poisoned valentine to the industry by way of a Fellini-esque bacchanal. Those who have had their fill of the director’s impressionistic musings will find his seventh feature as empty as the lifestyle it puts on display; for the rest of us, there’s no denying this star-studded, never-a-dull-moment cinematic oddity represents another flawed but fascinating reframing of man’s place in the modern world.
With “To the Wonder” (2012) and now “Knight of Cups,” plus a still-untitled drama and the documentary “Voyage of Time” still to come, Malick has settled into a deeply personal and unusually productive vein, albeit one that all but his staunchest admirers may find wanting compared with his celebrated earlier work. Absent the grand historical subjects of “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” or the cosmic glories of “The Tree of Life,” the director has turned his focus on attractively forlorn wanderers set adrift in the present day, pursued by a restless, roving handheld camera that blurs their visions, memories, private moments and encounters with others into one convulsive stream of consciousness. To see our 21st-century reality from Malick’s exalted perspective (mediated once again by the superb eye of d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki) is to feel at once astonished and mildly deflated; it’s as if he were encouraging us to look at our everyday surroundings anew, but also working overtime to extract something profound from the overriding banality of modern life.
At the same time, given how few filmmakers of Malick’s stature have made this kind of moral and spiritual inquiry so central to their work, it’s hard not to be taken with a movie that opens with an audio excerpt from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (recited by John Gielgud), then pauses for some stunningly beautiful images of the aurora borealis as seen from outer space, before settling on the figure of a bedraggled-looking Christian Bale walking around a lonely desert landscape. A narrator (voiced by Brian Dennehy) recounts an ancient tale of a knight from the East who was sent westward by his father in search of a magnificent pearl, but drank from a fateful cup that caused him to fall into a deep slumber. We can safely infer that Bale’s character (identified as “Rick” in the closing credits) is meant to be a latter-day stand-in for that knight, a Hollywood type who has embraced la dolce vita and lost his sense of self in the process. “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know,” Rick murmurs in one of the film’s many voiceovers, the preferred method of communication for this otherwise tight-lipped character.
If that sounds like too simplistic a premise for a 118-minute feature, the result is sufficiently sprawling and formally bold to propel the viewer’s attention forward, guided in part by the glitziness of the L.A. locations (abetted by Malick’s regular production designer, Jack Fisk) and the dynamic movement of the camera. Following a violent earthquake that rattles the foundations of Rick’s Santa Monica apartment, we find ourselves immersed in the lazy rhythms of life as he has come to know it — conveyed in brief sensory snippets of him speeding down the 405 in a convertible, hanging around seemingly empty studio lots (Warner Bros. and Paramount make fleeting appearances), visiting the CAA compound in Century City, and cavorting with all manner of lissome young women in nightclubs and hotel suites. The pulsating background music in these scenes stands in jarring contrast to the passages of Grieg, Chopin, Pachelbel, Debussy, Arvo Part and other selections that otherwise flood the soundtrack in classically Malickian fashion, complemented by a recurring seven-note progression that forms the basis of the score by “To the Wonder” composer Hanan Townshend.
The Knight of Cups is an explicit reference to one of the cards of the tarot, marking Rick as someone who is restless, artistic, romantic and adventurous by temperament. Many of the other figures in Rick’s life are introduced with their own handy tarot symbols, lending the proceedings a somewhat cleaner, more episodic structure than usual; in perhaps Malick’s most nakedly autobiographical touch, Rick is revealed to have two younger brothers, one of whom died tragically young (and is referred to as “the Hanged Man”). His other brother (Wes Bentley) is a volatile figure prone to ferocious physical and emotional outbursts, most of which are directed at their aging father (Brian Dennehy) — his tarot card is “the Hermit” — whose pride in Rick’s achievements is tempered by disapproval of the life he now leads.
That life, and indeed the movie itself, is largely consumed with the comings and goings of many, many beautiful women, and if “To the Wonder” seemed sexually forward compared with the director’s earlier work, then “Knight of Cups” often feels downright transgressive. While there are no straight-up sex scenes, there is ample female nudity, a suggestion of a threesome, and what is surely the first instance of erotic toe sucking in Malick’s oeuvre. The women themselves include the petite, pink-wigged Della (Imogen Poots), who tags along with Rick for a while; Karen (Teresa Palmer), a stripper he runs around with in Vegas; and Helen (Freida Pinto), a gorgeous model he first encounters at a gaudy party attended by a veritable who’s-who of bigscreen and smallscreen talent; these include Antonio Banderas, Jason Clarke, Nick Kroll and Joe Lo Truglio, among others. Whether these actors were hired for walk-on appearances, or cast in larger roles that were then whittled down to mere seconds of screen time (probably the former, but you never know), this is one setting where Malick’s penchant for casting A-list talent feels more germane than usual.
While there is mercifully less of the incessant earth-mother spinning and twirling from “To the Wonder,” the women here still do plenty of dancing and running about, often with our hero in ardent pursuit; the film’s signature shot finds Rick walking along the beaches of Malibu with one of his fetching paramours in tow, frequently pausing to dip their feet in the surf. A more substantial kind of romantic drama emerges along with the film’s two top-billed actresses: Cate Blanchett surfaces in flashback as Rick’s ex-wife, a hard-working doctor whom we see growing disenchanted with her increasingly unmoored spouse, while Natalie Portman appears later on as Elizabeth, a married woman who has a brief fling with Rick and finds herself pregnant and guilt-stricken shortly thereafter.
Despite the strong emotional undercurrents in these scenes, the feeling persists that these excellent actors — particularly Blanchett, her striking features and natural expressiveness fascinatingly at odds with the prevailing aesthetic — are being confined by their fundamentally archetypal roles. At this point, too, there is something inevitably reductive about Malick’s primary conception of women as love interests passing through the revolving door of Rick’s life, a problem that would grate more if the man himself were less of a cipher. Even allowing for the director’s way of treating actors as vessels for his themes and ideas, and his gift for using blocking and body language to convey meaning, it’s hard not to notice the degree to which Bale’s magnetism has been drained away here.
Similar things were said of Ben Affleck in “To the Wonder,” of course, but he had less onscreen charisma in the bank to start with, which made sense for the reserved, emotionally indecisive man he was playing. Rick, although similarly hard to read, could have at least conveyed a modicum of the creative spark or energy that ostensibly brought him to his current high-low point; the press synopsis describes him as a “comedy writer,” but there’s little in the film — or indeed, in Malick’s largely humorless style — to bear out that description.
Unsurprisingly for a filmmaker who has steered clear of any conventional or commercially driven rubric over the course of his four-decade career, “Knight of Cups” reveals little interest in dissecting the industry at hand or providing any concrete insights into the art-making process. Malick remains concerned almost entirely with interior states; with the spiritual connections that are forged and ruptured between individuals; and with the grim consequences of a life lived in continual exposure to the world and its most corrupt elements. (In that respect, one movie it clearly recalls is Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” another example of an auteur employing a highly specific, image-driven cinematic language to explore celebrity ennui.) It’s a moralistic stance that may in and of itself cause certain viewers to recoil, particularly when Dennehy’s earnest, prayerful father figure and Armin Mueller-Stahl as a grave-looking priest are on hand to nudge Rick back toward the straight and narrow.
Those tarot references aside, Malick’s view remains a deeply and unapologetically Christian one; Rick’s story may echo that of the lost knight, but it also has obvious roots in the parable of the prodigal son, and throughout “Knight of Cups” you can just about make out the voice of a father patiently, insistently calling his wayward child home. It’s that instinctive compassion that keeps the film from turning crushingly didactic, along with the myriad aesthetic pleasures afforded by the Malick’s typically dense layering of image, sound and music. Shooting in Los Angeles for the first time (on a mix of 35mm, 65mm and digital formats), he proves particularly attentive to the ambient drone of traffic and the glittering lights of downtown at night. Once more, too, he finds poetic contrasts between external and internal spaces, an untamed wilderness and a glassy modernist cityscape — or in this case, between the natural splendor of the ocean and the beautiful prison of a swimming pool.