Cinema’s Poet of Awe? Or That Horny Kid in Your Directing Class?

Terrence Malick’s new Knight of Cups is beautiful, and obsessed with observing beautiful women.

Still of Christian Bale in Knight of Cups.
Christian Bale plays Rick, a fading movie star whom—as per Malick tradition—we meet in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures

What if the Entourage movie had been directed by Terrence Malick? What if Vinny Chase had woken up one morning only to find that he was 40 years old, E and Turtle had both moved on with their lives, and that—after nearly two hedonistic decades of easy work and easier sex—he had become trapped in the eye of a perpetual hurricane that kept everything else in life at a perilous distance? What if the artist formerly known as Aquaman began to realize that living on top of the world meant that he had never made a space for himself inside of it? Ari Gold … Johnny Drama … always you wrestle inside me.

The answer is Malick’s Knight of Cups, in which Christian Bale plays Rick, a fading movie star whom—as per Malick tradition—we meet in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis. Racked with the same vaguely Catholic dislocation that Malick has struggled to articulate throughout his recent prolific-by-his-standards run of films, Rick is introduced in a sequence that begins with him wandering through the desert before abruptly cutting away to a view of the aurora borealis as seen from space. 

 “Remember the story I used to tell you as a young boy,” Brian Dennehy, playing Rick’s father, whispers over a ramble of footage, not asking his son a question so much as trying to guide him home. “It’s about a knight—a prince—sent west into Egypt to find a pearl from the depths of the sea.” Rick, too drunk to stand upright, crawls on all fours around a hedonistic Hollywood roof party. “But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king.” Two Japanese women in bright wigs blow glitter into Rick’s face. “He forgot about the pearl.” Rick sits on the floor wearing that giant horse mask that was all the rage a few years back. “And fell into a deep sleep.” 

That’s when an earthquake arrives to shake the prince from his slumber. 

Guaranteed to be Kanye West’s favorite movie of 2016, Knight of Cups is a slipstream of a story about a man who’s jolted from the indulgent inertia that his celebrity has afforded him. The particulars of Rick’s situation are left vague, but—no matter how opaque Malick’s approach can sometimes feel—they’re also rather obvious. “I spent 30 years not living life, but ruining it for myself and others,” his confessional voiceover intones. “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know.” There’s no great mystery as to what’s eating at this guy: He’s a fake, a stranger in a strange land he’s come to confuse for home. His emptiness has begun to define him, and things have gotten so bad that he’s now the lead of a twilight-era Terrence Malick film.

As Rick spends the next two hours pawing at a parade of the film industry’s most gorgeous women, it soon becomes clear that he’s suffering from a problem of specificity. Whether he’s humping Imogen Poots against a window, doting on Freida Pinto at a modeling session, or following Teresa Palmer down a zip-line above the Las Vegas strip, Rick is caught in an infinity pool of erotic visions, barely capable of distinguishing one from the next. The only partner who manages to stand out from the pack is the comparatively decrepit Cate Blanchett as our blank hero’s earthy ex-wife.

At one point during the cameo-jammed, Felliniesque house party that serves as the film’s centerpiece, Antonio Banderas uses his voiceover powers to telepathically tell Joe Manganiello that “women are like flavors: sometimes you want raspberry, and then you get tired of it and you want strawberry.” Everything about Rick’s journey would suggest that Malick is mocking the idea that pretty women were put on this Earth to save wayward men—the withering sarcasm with which one of his sex dolls asks “Did I bring you back to life?” might prove genocidal to the remaining population of unproduced manic pixie dream girl screenplays.

On the other hand, Emmanuel Lubezki’s undulating camera is so drunk on the curves and softness and small hairs of these female bodies that Knight of Cups feels as though it’s trying to drink them up through the lens. The more beautiful someone is, the more that Malick is content just to look at them; after casting women as the lead characters in his miraculous first two features, Malick has come to see women only for their exteriors. “Your mind’s a theater,” Palmer’s stripper tells Rick. Well, Malick’s is a burlesque. At the turn of a dime, he can transform from cinema’s reigning poet of awe into the horny kid in your graduate directing class and back again. Of course, Malick would probably be the first to tell you that he’s both at all times.

Malick’s films tend to unfold in caresses rather than acts, and Knight of Cups is no exception. The narrative is divided into segments that are announced with the names of different tarot cards (the Moon, the Hanged Man, etc.), but the difference between the various bits is increasingly hard to parse. Stasis is a difficult thing to express on screen, but Rick is the most detached protagonist that Malick has ever had, a man who walks through his own life like one of Wim Wenders’ angels observing mortality from a distant perch. At times, the back of his shoulders fills up so much of the frame that you almost have to crane your neck to see what he’s looking at.

At its best moments, Knight of Cups feels like Malick is showing us Hollywood so that we might understand why he’s done everything in his power to avoid the place. Ever since the decades-long sabbatical he took between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, the director’s supposed distance from the crassness of pop culture has become a key component of his brand; here it feels like he’s pushing back without coming out of the trenches. Knight of Cups argues that neglecting press doesn’t make someone a recluse, and choosing a life away from the fakeness of studio back lots and the drone of ketamine-addicted producers doesn’t make someone an eccentric.

Still, it’s surreal to watch him swan dive into the entertainment industry. In a film that can feel ploddingly redundant to anyone familiar with the director’s unmoored style or his ongoing war of attrition with the better angels of his nature, Knight of Cups is most compelling when it stares into the showbiz abyss and confronts the specificity that its hero struggles to find. Los Angeles is a place that was born in the public’s imagination, but Malick insists that the more recognizable it becomes, the more alien it appears. The central party is cleverly populated by a squall of quasi-famous actors who don’t know what they’re doing there. (Thomas Lennon’s account of the shoot is a must-read.) The effect is one of looking at Hollywood in a funhouse mirror, in which you gawk at all the beautiful people yet wonder why anyone would ever want to be one of them.

But Knight of Cups falls on its sword whenever Malick gets transfixed by the sight of his own reflection. Beginning with the autobiographical The Tree of Life, the director has more explicitly inserted himself into his films, filtering the details of his stories through the framework of his personal obsessions. In other words: Daddy issues and dead brothers abound, and there’s a terrible hiccup in the film’s rhythm every time Wes Bentley (playing Rick’s surviving sibling) wanders into view. Bentley’s performance has been shaped in the edit so that it’s all simmering rage and hot flares of emotion, and each of his scenes is so glaringly artificial that you find yourself too removed from the action to think about anything other than Malick’s method. Dennehy is used sparingly as Rick’s father, but his generic paternal shtick (“Redeem my life—justify it”) often sounds like a faint echo of something Brad Pitt might have said in a previous film.

But the problem isn’t that Malick is repeating himself—after all, the process of revisiting the same material every year is the bedrock of most theological study, and even true believers find it hard to remember Rick’s ultimate takeaway that suffering is an expression of God’s love. The problem is that Malick never forgets about the pearl. He’s spent so much time trawling the ocean floor for it, always using the same tools, that he no longer can capture the serendipity that once characterized his best work. Malick has moved from self-discovery to self-affirmation; he knows exactly what he’s looking for, and Knight of Cups, for all its splendor, made me wish that he could take a swig and forget.