I always leave a Terrence Malick film with my mind still cloudy with its cadence, and my eyes seeing the world more closely. He’s always been a poetic filmmaker, prone to gliding away from obvious plot progression through visual metaphor and a roaming curiosity for finding the beauty, the sublime, in any given moment. Lately, though, he’s been drifting further away from narrative. Where once his artful and spiritual approach was tied to the likes of a World War II film (The Thin Red Line) or a tale of colonial America (The New World), he now digs into his character’s minds with increasingly elliptical and empathetic discursiveness. He builds repeating patterns of images and rhyming, rhythmic, trance-like editing. Through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder and now his latest, Knight of Cups, he’s been drawn to similar images: beatific but sad women, stern fathers, people running barefoot on wet sand, hands gliding along surfaces smooth (stone, sheets, running water, skin) and textured (hair, grass, leaves). Does he repeat himself? Very well, then he repeats himself.
In Knight of Cups story and character are gathered only in flashes, flowing forth not in scenes but in impressions, moods, juxtapositions. Malick’s recurring images are the only entry point, and as a result it continues his trend toward gradually more obscurant and opaque films, increasingly alienating for anyone who can’t quite get on his wavelength or forgo skepticism about the sincerity of his intentions. But there’s real meditative, contemplative power for those of us who can. This new film stars Christian Bale as a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter wandering through a womanizing, glamorous life in Los Angeles. But this is no hectic star-struck satire. Malick takes his style and approach to urban environs for the first time, but finds the intimate and the natural growing through. Every woman the man interacts with gets taken to the beach and cavorts in the puddles and waves. Gardens and boulevards express themselves through concrete and surround glassy mansions. One cameo-stuffed sequence finds a party in a palatial mansion, but Malick’s eye is often drawn to the mountains beyond.
This is an ethereal and spiritual story of a man who feels hollow, who tries to fill the void with women (a terrific lineup: Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer), with family (a deadbeat brother, Wes Bentley; an imposing father, Brian Dennehy; a warm mother, Cherry Jones), with nature, with religion (a priest played by Armin Mueller-Stahl). But he can’t quite make the pieces fit. He’s a pilgrim without progress (the first voice we hear is Ben Kingsley reading from John Bunyan’s 1678 text), going through the motions. Not even an earthquake or a robbery can shake him from his haze of disaffected yearning. He wants to be made whole, and yet can’t figure out how to fill the missing parts of his soul. There’s a solemn sadness to the film’s hovering beauty, Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous camera breathing and moving on a plane of enlightenment the character can’t. It floats, slowly tracking or pushing, distracted by beauty all around. It follows a stream of consciousness, of memory, poetic associations, intuitive connections, casual and tactile expressions of faith and philosophy.
Bale walks along empty beaches and vacant backlots, stands stranded in the desert, sees homeless and hurting people on sidewalks and in clinics, hobnobs with Hollywood elites, rolls about with lithe naked women, sinks into pools. He’s drifting through experiences, part of them without being a part. Tarot cards, agents, parents, lovers, all have advice to impart about what gives life meaning. Each person - a talented cast posing and maneuvering, each bringing a different flavor and tone into the mix - has an effect on him. And yet there are no direct dialogue exchanges of any import as scenes slide and collide, linger on silences and flow with wall-to-wall impassioned murmuring voice over and classical music cut with bits of score and rock. The film is a fog, rootless, directionless, adding up to great meaning that the character can’t access. Strangely, this walls off the audience at times. I felt its yearning for completion, was often moved by it, and still had moments when I stared at the screen in befuddlement as images collected while only occasionally connecting.
Perhaps the key to unlocking this entrancing, beguiling, beautiful mystery of a film comes when Bale imagines (or is it actually happening?) a rooftop confrontation with his stubborn but frail father. The old man laments that he thought as he aged everything about life would begin to make sense, but instead he’s sad to find nothing but a confusing tangle of messy memories. The film finds moments of intense emotional drama and thoroughly somnambulant despair, holding them both at the same remove, behind artful glass and sacred aloofness. Moments of pain and moments of grace are swallowed up by the character’s depression and the film’s interest in turning his distress into beautiful suffering. It all adds up to a heavy spell I’ve found hard to shake, even as my mind struggled in the moment and afterwards to puzzle through its throughlines. This isn’t one of Malick’s best efforts, lacking his usual intuitiveness in its progression, but that’s mostly due to how closed off it feels. I get the sense this is intensely personal, a movie dragged kicking and screaming out of his innermost being and now sits there vulnerable and foreboding, full of raw spiritual power.