Production still courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Knight of Cups
directed by Terrence Malick
Broad Green Pictures

Knight of Cups is the third in a series of autobiographical films by the brilliant and eccentric Terrence Malick. The first of these, Tree of Life (2011), seems to me the greatest film yet of this century, a cinematic cathedral with an elaborate vision of creation, a search for the kind of faith that makes life itself sacred.

Malick is the antithesis of Hollywood storytellers. As multilevel mosaics, his episodic films work symbolically rather than by dialogue and narrative. From actors he wants reaction to the provocation of the moment—not careful rehearsing of the screenplay but long hours of spontaneous improvising, which later will be endlessly edited and interwoven with sublime music. His signature is the voiceover, which in Tree of Life often resembled prayer.

After all that majesty, though, the next film in the series, To the Wonder (2012), was vague and disjointed. Where episodes came together with awesome power in Tree of Life, in To the Wonder, they drifted inconclusively. Perhaps this is because Malick’s subject was a couple’s failing relationship; maybe the disquiet and disconnection were deliberate. But there was no moment that lifted the audience out of their seats.

Like Bunyan’s pilgrim, Malick struggles to transcend this world.

Now comes Knight of Cups, and Malick seems not to care whether he reached the audience. This is filmmaking behind a reef of solipsism, his creativity showing its obsessive underside.

Though there is no clear biographical narrative in these films, all apparently are taken from his life story. (To what extent is hard to know because Malick rarely gives interviews, attends premieres, or even allows himself to be photographed.) Tree of Life was on some level about his family and childhood in Waco, Texas. To the Wonder was an account of his failing second marriage to a French woman. Knight of Cups takes Rick (played by Christian Bale), presumably Malick, through a series of unsatisfying relationships with beautiful women in the sybaritic whirls of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Las Vegas.

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Taking its title from a tarot card, the film begins with a recording of the late actor Sir John Gielgud reading in voiceover from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Then we hear a fable about a king who sends his son in search of a precious pearl. The son gets lost in the temptations of the flesh and never looks for, much less finds, the pearl. Exactly what this object symbolizes we are never sure. Faith? Wisdom? God’s grace? Other tarot cards serve as enigmatic section headings: The Moon, Death, and so on.

At its deepest, Tree of Life was a search for faith in the face of suffering, and this film echoes that theme. The family in Tree of Life starred Jessica Chastain as the mother, a Madonna-esque figure, and Brad Pitt as the strict, angry, self-righteous father. Brian Dennehy now takes the latter role, forbidding in his old age but appearing only in brief episodes. Perhaps these are Rick’s passing memories of him. Once again there is the family’s unresolved pain and grief over the much-loved brother who committed suicide, but the talented, vulnerable child portrayed in the earlier film is here absent. The second of Malick’s brothers rebelled against the iron will of his father; he is embodied here as Barry (Wes Bentley), a recovering drug addict who shows Rick the darker side of life. Malick, the oldest of the three brothers, achieved everything he set his mind to: high school football star in Texas, Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, interpreter of Heidegger’s arcane philosophy, writer, and finally one of the world’s great auteurs, he is widely acknowledged as a genius. But like the characters in his films and like Bunyan’s pilgrim, he struggles to transcend this world in search of another.

Missing from this film is the figure of Malick’s mother. It would not be too Freudian to suppose that all the beautiful women willing to give themselves to Rick can never make up for the missing mother Malick adored. Pity the poor moviegoer who tries to understand this film without prior knowledge of Malick’s work: there is no indication of the backstory. Dennehy comes on like a senile madman, raging and weeping. And Bentley is unconvincing as whatever it is he is supposed to represent. There is one brief scene where Cherry Jones, the great stage actress, is meant to play the mother, but she barely makes her presence felt.

Bale has almost no scripted lines; he was meant to improvise. Whatever his considerable talents may be, his performance as Rick is wooden. He has neither expressive nor interesting facial features, and the camera often captures puzzlement—not a puzzled character but a puzzled actor. The various women of the film, played by Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas and others, were also meant to improvise, though not to the same extent. Malick filmed for hours trying to get an acceptable response, wanting neither the consummate professionalism of a Laurence Olivier nor the method acting of the Stella Adler school but the spontaneous experience of the moment.

This method worked well in Tree of Life. Besides Pitt’s unexpectedly brilliant performance there was Chastain’s usual fine work, and only in retrospect does one see that the actors were improvising rather than acting from a script. (Chastain’s only instruction from Malick was to look at the Madonnas in the Metropolitan Museum.) But Bale and all of his women too often look awkward. A few succeed: Natalie Portman convinces as a woman engaged in an adulterous affair, unsure whether she is pregnant by Rick or by her husband. As Portman remarked in an interview, she had to learn to live with a camera in her face for days. Teresa Palmer also delivers a strong performance as a stripper on all fours in a glittering cage who by the power of imagination seems to free herself from the sordid surroundings. There are many naked women in the film, but it never descends into the overtly salacious.

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If Malick has a philosophical premise, it is neither new nor obvious. In one scene a priest explains to Rick’s father why God doesn’t send us happiness. Suffering, he says, lifts us out of this profane world and gives us a sense of something higher—a tired formula unworthy of Malick the serious philosopher. In another scene near the end of the film, Rick visits the Japanese garden of Peter Matthiessen—the writer, nature lover, LSD proponent, Buddhist monk, and Zen practitioner—who advises him to live fully in the moment because that is all we can know fully. It is a marvelous interlude: Matthiessen, near death at the time, is truly impressive, but he does not seem to belong in this film.

Perhaps the most notable psychological feature of Rick’s relationships with women is that we are never fully shown or told why he leaves them, or how he feels about the separations. We are not allowed to understand the most essential question in the film: Why does the Knight of Cups move on? Is it impossible for him to connect with another human being? Does he need God to be part of the marriage contract? We never get the feeling that he is an erotic Don Juan, eager for the next conquest. We learn he was once married to a saintly doctor (Cate Blanchett), whose white hand we see touching a maimed and deformed black man. There is a moment when she sees Rick again and wonders whether he left her because she couldn’t have children. She gets no answer, and neither do we.

Rick does seem to be searching for human connection, but as one woman tells him, “You aren’t looking for love. You want a love experience.” As he wanders from Beverly Hills bacchanals to deserted landscapes, it is not clear whether he is seeking spiritual solace or has been lost forever to Sodom and Gomorrah. Leaving this badly constructed and disappointing film—thanks to frenzied editing, the film refuses to grant us even the pleasure of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography—I came away thinking that all Rick, like Malick, could show us was his loneliness. We encounter not even the desperation that must go with it.