Terrence Malick's first two films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), established him as a filmmaker with a strong sense of the recent past and a natural ear for dialogue, matched by an eye for vivid but understated natural imagery. Even more unusual, he had patience, the ability to let a story pause and breathe and reflect on its environment instead of hurriedly jumping to the next plot point.
And then he disappeared. Twenty years would pass before the appearance of Malick's third film, a visually ambitious but narratively abstruse adaptation of James Jones' World War II novel The Thin Red Line. Plot lines were erased and major characters cut down to cameos while the director cast his attention on the exotic Pacific locations: The war was merely a distraction, a noise in the background of a glossy travelogue.
Lately Malick has become surprisingly prolific, releasing three films in five years, with two more due later this year. In that time, the traits that emerged with The Thin Red Line — self-absorbed visuals, a failure to engage with narrative, an undisciplined fascination with hands-on digital tools — have multiplied to such a degree that the idea of Malick ever making a film with the warmth of Days of Heaven or the raw honesty of Badlands seems unlikely. He's become trapped in a house of mirrors and, on the basis of his new film Knight of Cups, he's too absorbed with his own reflection to come out anytime soon.
In Knight of Cups, Christian Bale plays a dissolute character named Rick. Publicity materials describe him as a screenwriter, but it's not clear how they reached that conclusion since he's never seen writing or discussing any film work. True, we do see him meandering around film lots, but he also spends a lot of time on LA rooftops, wandering in the desert or visiting the beach. He wanders through a party, then goes to a beach; wanders through glass-walled office buildings, then goes to a beach; throws furniture, then goes to a beach; visits a strip club, then goes a beach. He drives around, too, although there's rarely any sense of where he's going (there are even shots of the Gateway Arch). Usually he ends up at a beach. If there's a message here, it's that the beach is good and buildings with glass walls are bad.
Rick, as the film heavy-handedly makes obvious, is a pilgrim (it opens with a quotation from John Bunyan). His life is clearly meant to be interpreted as some kind of quest. He wakes up in the middle of an earthquake (that's movie shorthand for an existential dilemma if your lead character lives in Los Angeles). He's having an identity crisis, which can happen if you spend a lot of time at drunken pool parties with Asian models and people in animal costumes, or hanging out at social gatherings with Ryan O'Neal and Fabio.
Rick shares some biographical elements from Malick's own life — a brother who committed suicide and a loud, stiff and wealthy father (played by Brian Dennehy, who staggers around like he's trying to simultaneously play Lear and Willy Loman). There are also strippers and Elvis impersonators — for, just like all LA pilgrims, his quest leads him to Vegas.
Macho antics alternate with New Age somnambulism, always accompanied by a rambling off-screen monologue ("Find your way from darkness to light"). People keep telling him to "feel something," but what is he supposed to feel? Empathy for the homeless people he walks by or the disabled patients at a hospital where his ex-wife works? Jealousy or disgust for the wealthy people whose parties he sleepwalks through? Does it matter? The film itself is very attractive, albeit in a superficial way, and very empty.
Knight of Cups was reportedly produced without a fixed script. Malick gave the performers notes — from full monologues to random phrases — right before filming but didn't require them to use them. It's a peculiar method, and in some ways a form of anti-improvisation, getting the author's words out while playing on the actor's uncertainty. And it shows: From a dramatic sense, no one says or does anything of particular significance. They're just pretty illustrations to distract the viewer from the banality of the endless commentary. Several women (Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett among them) cruise in for a few moments to strike poses and add their own pithy voiceovers ("There's no such thing as forever," "Real life's so hard to find," "The only way out is in.")
Back when Fellini's 8-1/2 loomed large as a model of personal filmmaking, many lesser filmmakers borrowed his metaphor of the frustrated/blocked genius to make their own self-serving fantasies of the Things They Must Do For Their Art (See, for example, Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland). Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups isn't one of those ersatz Fellini films; instead, it's the film that the lead character in one of those twice-removed Fellini knock-offs would have made. Forty years after launching a career with a film many have called the greatest debut since Citizen Kane, Malick has become become a practitioner of cinematic three-card monte, playing on his Salinger-like image to lend an air of mystery/mastery to glossy New Age navel-gazing.