Enigmatic writer-director Terrence Malick has made what is essentially the same movie three times in a row: Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and now Knight of Cups. It's time to ask if he knows what he's doing.
On one level, he unquestionably does. Malick's movies are elegantly photographed and edited, set to evocative mystical/minimalist music, and intermittently rapturous despite under-baked narratives. And the filmmaker has no trouble attracting Hollywood stars who allow him to finance his films, even if those actors' presence can be more distracting than compelling.
In Knight of Cups, a nearly silent Christian Bale mimes an L.A. man who meanders from downtown's Skid Row to Santa Monica's upscale bohemia, with interludes in Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the equally arid Century City. He eventually reveals that his name is Rick, and he's clearly in The Biz. The film's official synopsis says he's a screenwriter, although that's not apparent from what's on screen.
Rick is surrounded by women, no more beautiful than the ones in Malick's two previous films, but in greater profusion. These include his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a doctor who cares for the impoverished and disturbingly disfigured, and a married woman (Natalie Portman) with whom he's having an affair. (Or maybe the fling is over; chronology is beside the point.) The other lovelies include a stripper (Teresa Palmer), a model (Freida Pinto), and two others of no apparent vocation (Imogen Poots and Isabel Lucas). And that's not a complete list.
Like the protagonists of the earlier movies, Rick is haunted by family traumas drawn partly from the director's own life. He's on a spiritual quest, or should be, and encounters a priest with a foreign accent and a severe attitude. Last time, he was Javier Bardem; now he's Armin Mueller-Stahl.
That Knight of Cups is not just a gambol through show-biz hedonism is announced by its title — a reference to the Tarot card that represents a restless man who's guided by emotion — and its opening lines, which are from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. These are intoned by the late John Gielgud, commencing the movie's dense, murmuring narration. The film's characters rarely speak, but they do think out loud, and their ponderings overlap with lines from Bunyan; Plato's Phaedrus, whose concerns include erotic love; and The Acts of Thomas, one of those gnostic texts left out of the New Testament.
The words and pictures seldom align, although the abundant water imagery may symbolize rebirth or purification. Rick and various belles are forever splashing into surf or lurching into pools, often fully clothed. These secular baptisms are contrasted by what may be an actual joke: shots of dogs underwater, retrieving toys. Humans don't know what they seek, while canines have straightforward goals.
Visually, Malick often drifts into Koyaanisqatsi territory, and both his spiritual themes and his reduction of actors to flesh-and-blood mannequins recall Robert Bresson. Knight of Cups, however, also suggests a very different sort of filmmaker: Peter Greenaway.
Imagine Malick's film as remade by the Prospero's Books-era Greenaway, who saw cinema as a sort of hypertext. Rather than whispered literary allusions, there would be on-screen quotations, footnotes to identify references, pocket biographies of saints and philosophers, and perhaps even a history of divination by the Tarot cards that provide ominous titles for the movie's chapters.
This is not, of course, a formula for rendering Malick's films more accessible. But it would be a way for him to put some of his thinking into the film itself, to detail the ideas behind all the pretty wandering, posing, and splashing. Why not take the plunge?