Some say that Terrence Malick has been adrift in some cinematic neverland the past several years. Lost in a series of gorgeous yet deeply philosophical coffee table books masquerading as films. I say that while Malick has (for the most part) remained terrestrial he always had his head in the clouds, or at least pointed skyward. All the way back to BADLANDS in 1973, his debut as director. The narration/inner dialogue by Sissy Spacek ("Holly") in that film may have been more complete and informative than the whispers we hear in 2016's KNIGHT OF CUPS and some of the other recent films. But the same ethereal voice was there. The recognizance of the supernatural. At least to this viewer.
Malick is quite transparent in his use of Christian imagery, even having passages of Pilgrim's Progress quoted by a narrator in KNIGHT OF CUPS. This time, a man named Rick (Christian Bale) wanders Los Angeles in what appears to alternate between stupor and regret. Desultory meetings with crude Hollywood executives. He's apparently a screenwriter whose done well enough to afford trendy apartments and several women, each of whom we meet after screen titles (inspired by Tarot cards) like JUDGMENT, THE HIGH PRIESTESS, and DEATH appear, leading us through more and more scenes of Rick walking away from (or being walked away from) an ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a stripper (Teresa Palmer), and a young woman who already has a husband (Natalie Portman), among others. There are many shots of people standing far apart from each other, great divides between them.
It is through a guy named Tonio (Antonio Banderas), a unapologetic lothario, that perhaps we get a surface take on Rick and his many women - "You like raspberry for awhile, than you get tired of it and want, strawberry." Rick waltzes with them all in a series of quick edits, much like Ben Affleck did in TO THE WONDER. There are scenes of kissing, hugging, play, and inevitably, discord. In a snippet of images we get a summary of the wine to vinegar progression. The woman will withdraw, appear sad. Say things like "You don't want love, you want a love experience." The ex-wife, a physician who follows her groom to L.A., is glimpsed among the fakery of a Hollywood backlot, asking Rick if he regrets bringing her here. Here. Where? Interesting location choice, Mr. Malick.
Then the women are gone. Rick walks through empty apartments. One time he gets robbed. His father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and brother Barry (Wes Bentley) are seen here and there, still around to remind Rick of the deceased brother and son they lost. Joseph and Rick grieve not only for the dead, but for Barry, wracked by addictions. Among the whispers we hear Joseph wonder how his sons became so self-centered, so wayward. I sacrificed for my children, that's how I was raised. But we also hear his offers of unfailing love and acceptance. Always ready to receive them with open arms.
There are moments where others ask why Rick never had children. Would they offer salvation? Or at least a way to take focus off of self? What does it mean when Rick gives a sideways smirk at a baby carriage?
Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is necessarily stunning, as beautiful as Malick's......screenplay? Can we even call it that? Bale reports that the director had no shooting script on location, among those swaying palms and impossibly blue swimming pools and skies. Many returns to the ocean, but also the desert. I like to believe that Malick orchestrated every single lovingly designed shot beforehand, or maybe they revealed themselves to him. This movie will do the same.
Oh, you can criticize the listlessness, the arguable excess of the parade of naked young women, that Bale's character may be little different than Hugh Grant's character in ABOUT A BOY or a thousand others. But KNIGHT OF CUPS will offer the patient more than just pretty images. It will connect in mind and soul long after the viewing and with several more. Like with any other Malick.