With Knight of Cups, this decade officially becomes the most prolific of writer-director Terrence Malick’s career. Granted, his third film of the 2010s just barely edges out his previous high-water mark of two, reached in the 1970s when he made both Badlands and Days of Heaven. But still: even if Malick’s already-shot next film doesn’t emerge for another few years (it and Cups were shot back-to-back in 2012, the same year their predecessor To the Wonder emerged at festivals after shooting almost two years earlier), it will presumably come out before 2020, and this decade will be the one where Malick increased his filmography by a full one hundred percent.
Watching Knight of Cups, I found myself thinking of Malick’s extended gap time. Not because this movie made me long for another extended sabbatical (and also: more on that later), but because after a movie out on the plains and another movie in the Texas suburbs (and also at the beginning of the universe) and another movie set during the settling (or resettling) of America, here is a Malick movie that takes place mostly in Los Angeles. Malick goes to Hollywood! There’s even a section in Las Vegas. Malick goes to Vegas, guys! And let me tell you: if ever there was a use for Las Vegas, it is Terrence Malick shooting it like he’s making some kind of nature documentary, which possibly he is, because possibly he always is.
In this particular nature documentary, Malick follows what I’ve been led to believe is a screenwriter (Christian Bale) in his natural habitat: near water, surrounded by beautiful women. He’s also surrounded by actual Hollywood types, which means momentary cameos from, among other luminaries, Dan Harmon, some dudes from The State, Kelly Cutrone, Shea Whigham, and a dude from the Magic Mike crew. Malick has a reputation as a recluse (hence the aforementioned filmography gaps), but he seems to have access to a rolodex, at least. This particular film, tonally similar to his last two which were said to have at least hints of autobiography, I had to wonder: Is this what Malick experienced for twenty years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line? Here I’ve been assuming that between movies, he lived in some kind of hut in a field of wheat somewhere in a perpetual magic hour. But maybe he’s been sneaking back across the Los Angeles city lines and getting himself invited to schmooze parties.
The women in Bale’s life give this movie the slightest bit of shape, making it resemble a sort of romantic resume. Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Isabel Lucas float through of the movie, though with surprisingly little overlap, and also surprisingly little soulful twirling; put together, they probably do about half as much twirling as Olga Kurylenko did during To the Wonder. Cups also contains marginally more actual dialogue than To the Wonder, though hardly less voiceover, which is again so hushed and delicate that it can be hard to discern which actors are reciting it. So yeah, Malick is still in spiritual-poetry mode (I mean, was he ever out of it? But he’s still in deep, without the harshness of The New World or The Tree of Life leavening the woo-woo stuff). But as wonderfully alien as he makes Hollywood look, it’s not as if Los Angeles doesn’t affect him; there’s a hint of film-biz leering to the parade of gorgeous actresses, if for no other reason than sheer hedonistic volume.
Yet the camera isn’t in full-on male-gaze mode, despite some naked female figures swimming around. Malick has a way of shooting actresses that makes them look taller, more imposing. Performers like Poots or Palmer, often framed to look like li’l love interests in their Hollywood films, feel more rounded out here, maybe in part because Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera hovers and pokes around them, taking in their fullness, rather than framing the male star to dwarf them. Bale, in fact, looks perpetually on the verge of tumbling over in disorientation. He’s clearly searching for something (“life,” he sighs more than once on his voiceover track), and that’s about all that’s clear in a traditional narrative sense. No one whose patience was tried by To the Wonder will re-convert to Transcendental Malickism, and not everyone who was enchanted by Tree of Life will get back on board here. And I admit: When Knight of Cups cut to space early on, my heart leapt, only to gradually make its way back down, leaf-like, when I realized that no Tree of Life-style dinosaur digression would be forthcoming. Tree of Life had a heft to it, not just because it jumped back to the beginnings of the universe, but because it made simple scenes of a Texas childhood feel expansive, nostalgic, and sad all at once. Knight of Cups doesn’t hit quite the same marks for contemporary Hollywood moping.
Even so, there is a lot of earthbound beauty in Cups, like a cut from a car’s-eye-view shot of the scenery racing by to a static shot of equally stationary cars in a gigantic, white-lit parking garage. Any given ten or fifteen minutes of this movie is kind of hypnotic in its dreamy searching (“life,” am I right?), even if it’s a bit much all strung together. There’s something freeing about watching familiar actors unencumbered not only by exposition, but by plot, by full scenes, by mere dialogue. It can be frustrating watching Malick dither around with his spiritual poetry, for sure, especially in the wake of movies like Tree of Life and Badlands. But at the same time, are we so starved for narrative – for plot, of which there is so, so much on television and in the movies and in novels and everywhere – that Malick staying in experimental mode is offensive?
Of course, Malick’s poetry seems less rare, less jewel-like, now that it’s apparently being given a reading every couple of years. Even so, an experimental movie from a masterful filmmaker starring major movie stars coming out three or four times per decade doesn’t seem like a major imposition. Malick’s standing with film geeks feels a little like Weezer, of all things. They, too, returned after a lengthy hiatus greeted by ecstasy – followed by growing irritation that they would make albums that vaguely resembled but were clearly not the Blue one. This doesn’t make all of their post-comeback records great or even good, but there is a certain ongoing unsatisfied expectation that they might be able to recreate their first two albums – or the feelings they evoked so many years ago. It’s been years since Malick made Badlands (and even if your benchmark, like mine, is Tree of Life, that was five years ago), but it may be another decade or two before he escapes First Album Syndrome. What could be more Hollywood than that?