I know many serious film lovers who are slavishly devoted to the films of director Terrence Malick, so much so that they transfer the brilliance and emotional depth of films such as The Tree of Life to lesser works, notably the recent To the Wonder (2012).
With Knight of Cups, Malik provides another test for devotees because this strange foray into the libidinous world of Hollywood leaves a gaping maw of consternation in its wake.
Malick begins with a quote from The Pilgrim's Progress, a 1678 Christian allegory. Author John Bunyan's work about a journey to the Celestial City isn't the only source Malick quotes: He also cites passages from The Hymn of the Pearl, a Gnostic myth about a boy sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent.
I bring all this up not to demonstrate my knowledge of Christian literature, which is -- at best -- confined to perusals of Wikipedia, but to suggest that Malick's willful obscurity seems a frustratingly protracted exercise in navel gazing as filtered through what feels like a dense spiritual fog.
Equally troublesome is Malick's tendency to pepper his films with the barely audible thoughts of his characters. He blurs their speech and de-emphasizes anything resembling human connection. His characters live in worlds of their own.
This approach has been likened to dreams; but dreams and poetry always have been tricky stuff for movies, and they can do a filmmaker in as quickly as they can save him or her.
In Knight of Cups, Malick mostly abandons linear storytelling as he soaks in the often beautiful imagery of his collaborating cinematographer, three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki.
Taking its title from a tarot card, Knight of Cups casts the always adventurous Christian Bale as Rick, a screenwriter who's searching for meaning in his generally hollow life. Foundering in a sybaritic material world, Rick is a forsaken man.
When he's not engaged in sexual relationships, Rick is seen walking, driving his vintage convertible or looking at things. Of course, the gifted Lubezki gives Rick (and us) plenty at which to stare as Malick's camera explores Los Angeles.
Because most of Rick's quest (if that's what it is) involves women, Malick finds an opportunity to bring a diverse core of actresses to the screen.
Nancy (Cate Blanchett) plays Rick's ex-wife, a physician who works in a clinic. Karen (Teresa Palmer) appears as a Las Vegas stripper. Helen (Frieda Pinto) works as a model. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) gets pregnant by Rick. She's married to someone else.
As if flipping through a deck of Tarot cards, Malick structures his story around chapter headings such as The Moon, The Hermit and more. It takes more effort than it's worth to connect these titles to the hazy unfolding of Malick's Los Angeles-based scenes, some which include Rick's father (Brian Dennehy) and his bother (Wes Bentley).
Father and son are locked in an explosively angry duet.
Antonio Banderas presides over a Hollywood party attended by various Hollywood "insiders," a boisterous Bacchanal.
At first, it seems as if Malick wants to make a movie about another lost soul snared by the siren call of Hollywood hedonism. But he also seems to want to give Rick's searchings spiritual meaning: A lost soul, Rick is separated from God and trying to establish a connection or maybe he's just seeking meaning in a godless world or maybe ...
Well, in the end, who really cares what Rick is seeking?
We've all got troubles of our own, and Malick never convinces us (or at least me) that we should get involved with his.