Terrence Malick has evolved a cinematic style over his two films since “Tree of Life,” all shot by Oscar-winning Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, that involves following his protagonists through various spaces and landscapes, accompanied by voice-over narrations and lush classical music. Austin-based Malick, age 69, likes to shoot in an improvisational piecemeal way as inspiration hits and his actor collaborators are at hand. (They never know how or if they will wind up in the final product, shaped over time in the editing room.)
Malick usually follows a male protagonist (Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale) through interactions with other characters, often women partners.
With 2011’s Cannes-winning entry “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s method cohered into a powerful narrative centered on a family dominated by a powerful father (Brad Pitt in his best performance to date) and loving mother (Jessica Chastain).
But having revealed this approach, the subsequent “To the Wonder” and again, 2015’s Berlin world premiere “Knight of Cups” lack the gravitas and substance of “Tree of Life” and feel like retreads covering the same philosophical concerns. Malick asks the basic questions we all ask: Who am I? Which way should I go? How do I begin? How do I find happiness? Bale expresses his thoughts on the soundtrack, as there is little live dialogue. And Ben Kingsley intones various quotations from “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Again, figuring in the meandering tale is another powerful father, a revered stage actor played by a stoop-shouldered Brian Dennehy, who fights with one angry son (Wes Bentley) who has not succeeded in life the way Christian Bale’s Hollywood scion has. But our A-list screenwriter (we see him wandering the Warner Bros. back lot) is lost in a maze of parties and womanizing, and seeks to recover the happiness he felt when he was married to Cate Blanchett. The right woman would seem to be the answer, and so he seeks her. Bale carries the movie with far more soul and emotion than Affleck was able to muster in “To the Wonder.”
The other improvement with “Knight of Cups” is that Malick ventures to Los Angeles, offering a lush Lubezki travelogue of often familiar locations for any tourist: as Rick, Bale stares soulfully at the crashing Pacific at magic hour with several gorgeous love interests: his ex-wife (Blanchett), an actress (Imogen Poots), a married woman (Natalie Portman) and a nubile stripper (Teresa Palmer). With the exception of Blanchett, they are beautiful but vacant personalities. Dialogue would help.
We follow Bale in his vintage convertible or limo to many Hollywood hillside mansions—including one extraordinary party attended by the likes of real-life screenwriter-author Bruce Wagner and actors Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, and Jason Clarke— and well-appointed homes. Rick experiences an unsettlingly intense earthquake at his beach-side apartment, as well as a robbery, checks out the lamp posts at the LA County Museum, drives along the billboards on Sunset Boulevard, saunters through the Warner Bros. lot with his ex-wife and real agents Rick Hess and Patrick Whitesell, consults his agent at CAA (Michael Wincott) at Avenue of the Stars, inevitably parties down at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, wanders in the desert like Moses, checks out the Japanese designs at the Huntington Gardens with author Peter Mathiessen (who has since left us), and walks through sections of downtown LA that few residents would consider a good idea. There he visits a Tarot card reader, who provides names for the different sections of the film such as “The Moon” and “The Hanged Man” as well as its title.
Like “Tree of Life,” it’s best to let the film wash over you and enjoy Lubezki’s gorgeous images, from mist rolling over a hillside to inventive underwater perspectives. Mostly they are shallow views of a banal life and offer the male gaze on the female form in many lovely guises. Not a new narrative, this.