Just five years ago, Terrence Malick delivered The Tree of Life, a staggering work that explored the mysteries of creation, mixed with deeply personal recollections of adolescence: an opus, in every sense of the word. Now, he’s serving up Knight of Cups, which amounts to two hours of amoral cavorting in Los Angeles. That’s a rather flip description, but this is a surprisingly flimsy film, charting the wanderings of a screenwriter (Christian Bale) adrift in Hollywood, reminiscing on his relationships with women and others (but mostly women).
Malick used to be the most inscrutable, reclusive legend in Hollywood, making only five movies (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life) in 38 years, all of them tremendous, poetic works. In recent years, he’s stepped up his output, although he’s personally just as inaccessible. But while it’s fascinating to see Malick take steps into uncharted territory—Knight of Cups is his first fully contemporary, urban film—it’s unsettling to see a filmmaker who’s known for thoroughness work with such underdeveloped material. Bale’s journey through L.A. life has the spiritual overtones and detached voice-over narration viewers might expect from Malick, yet the film’s deeper meaning falls short of grand.
Like The Tree of Life (which focused on a 1950s Texas childhood like Malick’s) and his 2012 film To the Wonder (which echoed his marriage to and divorce from a French woman), Knight of Cups feels like it might be broadly autobiographical. Rick, the aimless screenwriter at the center of the film, seems to be a success, though it’s not entirely clear why. He’s taken aside on studio lots by executives and told what a bright future he has. He mingles among recognizable Hollywood faces at an opulent party in a California mansion. But half the time, Bale is craning his neck to gaze off-screen, or trying to wriggle out of someone’s grasp, perhaps to get to something more interesting.
The film is divided into thematic chapters, each inspired by a card from the tarot deck. The Knight of Cups (Rick himself) is an artistic spirit, bored and listless, constantly in need of new stimulation, which Rick certainly gets. The chapters largely correspond to different romantic encounters in his life, though there are darker interludes centered on a suicidal brother (Wes Bentley), an overbearing father (Brian Dennehy), and a devilish playboy (Antonio Banderas, who lights the movie up the minute he enters and leaves far too quickly).
But mostly, the sections focus on the women—the free spirit Della (Imogen Poots); Rick’s intelligent ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett); an aloof model named Helen (Freida Pinto), a stripper named Karen (Teresa Palmer); and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who just may be the love of his life. There’s more to these characters, but not much. Each chapter is impressionistic, consisting of some or no dialogue, much of it overheard. Malick’s camera (he has reunited with the Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) swings around and around, taking in the soulless glass-filled apartments and chintzy décor of Los Angeles, sometimes visiting strip clubs, other times lavish manses.
The plot doesn’t go anywhere in particular, but Knight of Cups does eventually gain some momentum. Some critics have called the film Malick’s Entourage, which is basically accurate. The point here is that Hollywood is a draining, disorienting, empty place, where even the freest creative spirits can get lost. That doesn’t feel quite as profound or revelatory as some of the insights into the human condition Malick has made in the past, but it’s a message fully received as viewers bounce from party to photo shoot to bedroom escapade.
Knight of Cups is Malick’s second noble failure since The Tree of Life, and shares much in common with To the Wonder. Both are gorgeously shot, feature an all-star cast giving performances one could generously describe as “confused,” and muse on matters of the heart in ways that feel at once esoteric and deeply, deeply personal. The director has two more features in post-production right now, and I’m still excited to see each of them—even in this diminished state, there’s nothing quite like a Malick movie. But once viewers have contemplated the mysteries of the universe itself, perhaps anything else will feel like a step down. Knight of Cups certainly does.