La-La Land: Terrence Malick’s Stalled SoCal Reverie Knight of Cups

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Knight of Cups
Directed by Terrence Malick
Opens March 4

Early on in the SoCal-set Knight of Cups—the not-so-great seventh feature by the great Terrence Malick—an earthquake awakens a man named Rick (Christian Bale) and sends him tumbling out of bed. As the aftershocks recede, he finds himself scuttling out of his condo—a barely furnished space in Santa Monica, halfway between the beach and a storage facility—into a world suddenly made strange. Potted plants fall and shatter; Rick can barely cling to the cement, and neither can the family just up the way. But the natural disaster doesn’t serve as a wake-up call for long. Soon Rick is beating a retreat back inside his head, so apparently strong is the undertow of his self-doubt. “Where did I go wrong?” the screenwriter wonders in voiceover just a bit later, the sort of earnestly searching, confoundingly vague whisper that’s become as synonymous with Malick as blades of grass blowing in the wind.

With Knight—which quotes The Pilgrim’s Progress and is titled after a tarot card, and puts a raft of classical pieces up alongside assorted electronica—Malick takes on the spiritual vacuum of hard-partying LA, a fantasyland where earth-shattering events barely register, and the cult of success reigns supreme. The bleeding-edge setting might seem a strange one for this particular 72-year-old, but it’s actually been a long time coming. The onetime period specialist first opened the curtain on contemporary life with the booming The Tree of Life (2011), in which he occasionally cut back to Sean Penn wandering through a purgatorial city of glass, sections that gave way to the fuller-bloom love story of To the Wonder (2012), with its theme of dislocation and its consequent make-it-new depictions of such staples of the American aughts as big-box stores and video chats.

The trick of Knight, another dance between faith and disillusionment, is to seek out alluringly loud places and all the while bury the viewer very deep inside one man’s troubled thinking. But if the Great Man pity party, essentially a failed experiment in subjectivity, is the auteur’s least transporting film to date, that’s not to say it finds him crossing into self-parody once and for all. Malick might lately have settled on the stylistic tropes that allow him to conduct scenes like movements of a symphony, but his approach isn’t really in danger of ossifying. Knight, Malick’s fourth collaboration with the Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, finds the director pushing his signature style—the sudden jump cuts, the polyphonic voiceover, and the ecstatically roving camera-eye—still further, to the point that it’s almost like we’re watching the cinematic equivalent of late Henry James. The syntax departs unexpectedly, the referents go missing, and before you know it, the characters seem to be communicating almost telepathically.

No surprise, then, that screenwriter Rick is himself a man of very few words—like a good Jamesian figure, one of his favorite pastimes appears to be just staring out the window. To him, writer’s block is more than a mere professional pitfall; it’s practically a lifestyle. On a backlot walk-and-talk, Rick’s agent refers to a project he never turned into the studio, and pitches another that might help revive his career; at home, his desk is bereft of even the most rudimentary word-processing equipment. With this suggestion of an author who can’t settle on what he’ll tackle next, readers of Peter Biskind’s 1998 Vanity Fair feature on Malick might get a strong waft of the autobiographical.

Whereas the fugitive protagonists of the director’s classic 1973 debut, Badlands, tirelessly self-mythologized to avoid confronting their true natures—“Guess I’m kind of lucky that way; most people don’t have anything on their minds,” says the placidly psychopathic Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen)—Rick gapes at the abyss of his inner life and doesn’t make so much as a peep. Bale spends the movie padding around in last night’s dinner jacket, aiming his sadly searching glances at invisible points off-screen, as if he’s trying to reconstruct steps he took earlier in order to determine where, exactly, he dropped his keys. The virtuoso actor, who co-starred in Malick’s transcendent New World (2005), nonetheless quite visibly struggles to adapt.

In most respects, Rick’s early-onset midlife crisis appears to have paralyzed him, but he’s able to rally on an all-too-typical score: proving his virility. He knows it’s not healthy, but he can’t stop. Bale’s character first takes up with a wild child played by Imogen Poots, who turns out to be as heavy on the recriminations (“I think you’re weak”) as she is on the eyeliner. She comes and goes, as do a model (Freida Pinto) and stripper (Teresa Palmer), an ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) and another old flame (Natalie Portman). In particular, Blanchett’s character, a do-gooder doctor, makes a point of giving Rick an evidently deserved hard time, but she’s no more a person herself than part of a succession. Many of these women get their own separate section of the film, of which there are eight—a structural choice that reduces them to steps on the way back to enlightenment.

Rick owns a very civilized suite of rooms himself, one that at any given moment a scantily clad stunner might well be traipsing through, but the home where he grew up exerts more power over his thoughts. Scenes with his illegibly rebellious surviving sibling (Wes Bentley, in a particularly thankless role he’s unable to make his own) and flashbacks featuring his father (Brian Dennehy) reveal Rick to be the peacemaker in a family torn apart by the death of a beloved son and brother. (Here, another sign that Rick is at least in part a stand-in for the man who conceived him—Malick’s own brother committed suicide in Spain in the late 1960s, a fact also echoed as a plot point in The Tree of Life.) Since Bale has evidently been asked to haunt the movie he nominally stars in, and the women are essentially interchangeable, Dennehy winds up being perhaps the most vivid presence in Knight, his Dad looming over the mopey action like a sternly disapproving Old Man of the Mountain. Lubezki’s most spectacular work here isn’t in capturing the high-sheen surfaces of the city, but rather in isolating the elder-statesman actor at the very edge of a fish-eye-distorted frame, a man empowered by the suspension-bridge span of his own shoulders.

Dwelling on his shattered nuclear family, and dedicating himself to high-volume serial monogamy, Rick drifts through small-time dream factories like fashion shoots and strip clubs. But it wouldn’t be right to call him a hedonist. This is no Left Coast Wolf of Wall Street: When someone in the lobby of investment bank mutters “I want to make you rich” to Rick, Malick lets the line wash away in the sound mix to signal that his protagonist is barely listening. Our man also attends a gaudy house party that’s like something out of a Paolo Sorrentino movie. Guests include noted cutups Joe Lo Truglio, Thomas Lennon, and Nick Kroll, plus a host of slick baby boomers Tim and Eric might well have cast, but the master of ceremonies at the bacchanal, all ice sculptures and chandeliers, is none other than Antonio Banderas. He jumps into a swimming pool in formal attire, to attendee applause. Meanwhile, Rick can’t summon the presence of mind to drink a drop.

The whole of Knight itself feels at once more excessive and more sobering than its predecessors in the often-rapturous Malick canon. There are indeed sights to behold here, largely infrastructural ones: highways snaking around like the most elaborate stone monuments ever constructed, piers disappearing out to sea, a row of soundstages arrayed like airplane hangars. But instead of working his usual magic—seducing us with a time and place before showing us its dark side—the director here is all ambivalence, all the time. And the film, a minor-key work about a writer who wakes up one morning to find that he’s turned into a blank page himself, is less inviting for it. Since Rick wallows near sin more than he wallows in it, and as a womanizer he faces few lasting emotional consequences for his behavior, the spiritual stakes here also don’t feel in keeping with the grappling-toward-redemption theme.

With two projects still in the pipeline—the IMAX documentary Voyage of Time and the indie-rock fiction Weightless (also featuring Bale)—it’s seeming more and more that Malick is ramping things up just as his major phase has wound down. One can only hope that his new film finds him working through his own case of writer’s block. After all, the final word of the film—“begin”—gives hope that he may already have come out the other side.

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