Terrence Malick films used to be a rare and exquisite pleasure, like an eclipse, a pair of magpies or an England World Cup quarter final.
Having staked his claim to greatness early on with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) – human stories that drank deep of the American landscape, basked in cinematographic beauty and offered a mythic dimension rare even in that golden period of cinema – this true artist made us wait 20 years for his next masterpiece.
The Thin Red Line was a long, star-stuffed Second World War movie that was actually an Edenic hymn to nature and a shot across mankind’s bows, leaving actors as big as Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman and Bill Pullman on the cutting-room floor, and Adrien Brody reduced to two lines.
The ruthlessly committed stylist-philosopher’s next film as director, The New World, came eight years later. For all of his indulgences and impracticalities, Malick’s work was always arresting and never trite, and critics and academies queued to worship him.
Since then, however, Malick has been somewhat churning them out, with three expressionistic, interior-monologue-driven canvases in just over five years. It’s like a fine-dining restaurant suddenly serving fast food, except it still tastes like fine dining.
The Tree of Life (2011) used the flashpoint of a 1950s family tragedy in Texas to pose questions about the very existence of our species – Malick blended footage of Brad Pitt into sequences showing the birth of the universe, followed by dinosaurs and everything, then pictured the death of our planet. Near-instant follow-up To the Wonder (2012) laid religious faith and environmental doubt over Ben Affleck’s holiday romance. Less fundamental than The Tree of Life, it still held the gaze and the mind.
Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, may prove to be his first misstep. Another self-consciously serious treatise on the human condition, I’m afraid it expects us to lose ourselves in the affluent ennui of a Hollywood screenwriter. (The production notes specify that he’s a “comedy writer” but there is no hint of this knack in the film.)
On the plus side, Christian Bale certainly convinces as the restless, unfulfilled, bored LA player, measuring out his life in largely shallow, certainly failed relationships and glamorous parties, attended in passing cameo by the random likes of Ryan O’Neal, Dane DeHaan and Jason Clarke, and Antonio Banderas apparently playing a less humble version of himself.
Not a massive amount happens, although that was never a problem before. Bale’s agents negotiate a beneficial contract, burglars break into and enter his minimalist luxury apartment (a surprisingly comic highlight), and a wander in the desert seems to awaken something in his dulled soul.
Meanwhile the death of a younger brother haunts both Bale and his tightly wound sibling Wes Bentley, who turns up from the family seat in Missouri twitching like a loon. Dad Brian Dennehy looms ferociously large in what might be flashbacks or fantasies, as if transplanted from a performance of Death of a Salesman. They all shout at each other. Little is resolved.
The story does not offer neat resolutions and leaves much to guesswork; again, that’s never been a problem before, but the shallowness Malick seems to want to expose remains shallow.
Visually, Malick gleans surface poetry out of freeways, palm trees, Death Valley vistas and yards of palatial Santa Monica real estate, but tedium quickly sets in within this narrow palette. Cate Blanchett shines as an ex-wife who treats horribly scarred burn victims (clearly real ones), but it’s never clear why she would have fallen for Bale; meanwhile Natalie Portman and Imogen Poots bring unearned depth to further exes as they stack up. Freida Pinto can do little with her brief fling as a model.
There are intriguing allusions to Tarot (whose cards constitute intertitles: The Moon, The Hanged Man etc) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (we hear Ben Kingsley reading it out), and adding to the texture are speech recordings of Charles Laughton and music from composers including Gorecki, Vaughan Williams, Grieg, Arvo Part and Norwegian ambient instrumentalist Biosphere. Certainly there are elements to be enjoyed here, but you suspect it does not amount to a hill of beans.
I was also rather disturbed by the surfeit of lithe female flesh – not least at the obligatory, sleazy lap-dancing club where Bale picks up a stripper (Theresa Palmer). From a director in his 70s, it all begins to feel a bit Eyes Wide Shut.
Still, given Malick’s current work rate, there’ll be another one along in a minute.
Knight of Cups is released in cinemas on Friday 6 May