‘Badlands’ and ‘The Thin Red Line’ director Terrence Malick’s late-career float into fragmented, personal, poetic and explicitly spiritual filmmaking continues with ‘Knight of Cups’, a largely LA-based portrait of a successful Hollywood writer, Rick (Christian Bale), lost in life, love and the heady puzzle of a Malick movie. Time and place are as fluid as the Pacific Ocean, in which characters regularly paddle and swim as we see Bale glide through a succession of relationships with six women played by among others Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. Also appearing in Malick’s silky patchwork of ethereal moments are Rick’s troubled brother (Wes Bentley), disturbed father (Brian Dennehy) and the memory of his dead brother, as well as a string of blabbering Tinseltown hangers-on and dealmakers.
Rick, suited and pristine, strides across lawns, through parties, down pavements and into immaculate and often empty houses and apartments like an estate agent wistfully flogging his own biography back to himself. He comes across like a spirit wandering through the past landscape of his own life, a feeling intensified by ‘Birdman’ cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s gliding, head-high camerawork. Bale barely opens his lips, although we hear his character in voiceover, reinforcing the idea that this is a collection of memories coloured by the sad wisdom of hindsight as Rick passes from one world to the next.
There’s much here, in style and themes, recognisable from ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘To the Wonder’. But original to ‘Knight of Cups’ – and more successful than its hard-to-crack indulgence of this unreachable man floating from one woman to the other or its weirdly coy attitude to sex – is the film’s arresting, indelible vision of LA. The city Malick gives us is at once familiar and strange, beautiful and empty, a place where the real and the surreal were born to co-exist. An otherworldly theatre for an otherworldly tale.
But let’s not kid ourselves: cast-iron interpretations of Malick’s recent filmmaking are risky. It’s also a matter of taste. You either slip into the pretty, dreamlike, wistful groove of his later films or you don’t, and even hardened arthouse film lovers may find ‘Knight of Cups’ way out of their comfort zone.
This new film feels very much like part of the same project as ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘To the Wonder’. All three films strive to make sense of a dislocated man reaching into his past. All three reach for the stars (there’s even a shot of Earth from space in ‘Knight of Cups’) and grasp for answers out of our everyday reach. All of them, too, feel like waking dreams that only their maker could truly explain or maybe even appreciate, meaning they’re as infuriating and impenetrable as they’re magical and open.