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'Knight of Cups:' Why Terrence Malick is at the top of his game

Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' finds the director continuing an exploration that began with 'Tree of Life'

Terrence Malick has been working in a pretty consistent gear over the last five years. It’s a gear that’s infuriating to some, thrilling to others, but whatever you think of it, Malick is doing this phase like he’s done so many others: his own way.

In this light, “Knight of Cups,” the director’s new movie starring Christian Bale that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday (I saw it at a screening in Los Angeles), is less a new work than an extension of all he’s been up to in this robust second career. “Cups,” which has been both generating hot anticipation from fans and engendering a preemptive eye-roll from detractors, is the latest (final?) piece of a closely packed trilogy interested in the big ideas -- beauty, religion, masculinity, meaning.

As with his 2011 opus “The Tree of Life” and the 2012 follow-up “To the Wonder,” Malick again traffics in certain archetypes and themes. A fortysomething man (Sean Penn in “Tree,” Ben Affleck in “Wonder” and now Bale as the Hollywood screenwriter Rick in “Cups”) is successful by almost any standard. But instead of feeling contentment, he experiences disconnection. He’s stalked by an unresolved ghost, taunted by an unquenched thirst. All three of these characters occupy shiny modern spaces (Affleck’s landscaper in “Wonder” spends much of his time outdoors, but there’s something slick about his existence too). Yet they seek every opportunity to escape.

Rick, particularly, seems to sleepwalk through life, present physically for the meetings and parties and events that are his daily regimen—the film dips often into scenes of Hollywood exces, from photo shoots to strip clubs--but his thoughts are wandering elsewhere. He often hopes to find solace in natural beauty, traveling to it in his life or his mind (voiceovers, a Malick staple, are again abundant here), as well as in the company of women, a steady parade of mysterious figures who seem at once to intrigue and bore him. (Natalie Portman is but one.)

“Cups” is also formally similar to its two predecessors. Malick has generally liked to dial down the pace and make the viewer do more of the work, but there’s something more interesting and specific happening with these three films, even and perhaps especially with “Cups.” Scenes don’t unfold in traditional expository ways. Instead, we learn by glimpses, by innuendo, by fleeting moments that are both overheard and -- in a term that may only apply to Malick movies -- overseen.

No one stops to tell us a new relationship has begun; we divine it by a shot of a heretofore unseen young woman playfully chased across a bedroom. A divorce isn’t stopped and explained -- Cate Blanchett instead materializes to offer a snippet about the past that suddenly fills in a gap. All the narrative information is there -- it’s a misapprehension to say Malick doesn’t care about story. It just comes to us in a different way.

In film-journalism parlance, I suppose the term for all of this is “experimental,” though that phrase seems neither sufficient nor entirely accurate. Malick has created a new language and, having spent so many years in a kind of state of creative mutism, is really intent on speaking it.

That language is unleashed to some specific ends in “Cups.” Rick, as a Hollywood screenwriter, is tuned out to the agents and managers who want things for or from him, and his indifference does little to quiet them. This is also Malick’s Los Angeles movie in other ways. Shot by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubeszki (the cinematographer on “Tree” and “Wonder,” not to mention audacious pieces such as “Birdman” and “Gravity”), the movie doesn’t miss a Southland landmark -- in the space of a few minutes we might go from downtown L.A.'s skid row to the Hollywood Hills, from the Venice Boardwalk to a Los Feliz subway stop.

Chivo takes particular interest in juxtaposing the cool angularity of the man-made spaces (Malibu mansions, rooftop hotel pools) with the region's natural sights, the beaches and the Joshua trees. There are also modern structures of less lushness -- empty freeways and the prosaic lake -- all shot with the same reverence Malick reserves for the open spaces of Texas or Oklahoma. Never before has a studio backlot been bathed in so much golden light.

Malick scholars might read "Cups" as an artist reckoning with his own past, or at least mining it very skillfully; after all, we still have only a spotty understanding of the director’s two decades in self-exile, largely in Paris, between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” It’s easy to see these films through that lens, of a man telling us about the alienation he was feeling when he seemed to drop off the face of the Earth.

It’s easy, in part, because Malick drops so much tantalizing autobiographical detail into his work (once again here the main character loses a brother at a young age, as Malick did.)

And it’s especially easy given Malick’s own reputed disenchantment with the studio system during the 1970s -- a disenchantment that may have prompted the European refuge in the first place. When Rick barely listens to the Hollywood figures talking around him, one begins almost unconsciously to make connections to Malick’s own past.

I asked Bale if he thought the movie had a large autobiographical quotient -- especially on the Hollywood front, what with Malick now living in Austin and long removed from the studio game.

“Oh, Terry knows that world well. Very well,” Bale said in a post-midnight (Pacific time) chat Sunday from the Berlin Film Festival. “But this is also a globally relatable story. I don’t think it’s just about Hollywood. It’s what happens when someone finds success and then says ‘What next? Is it just more of the same? Is there anything new, or do we keep getting on the hamster wheel?” (Whether some of this could apply to Bale -- or whether Malick slyly cast Bale because he felt the Rick character addressed the actor’s own life -- the actor didn’t say, though many will make their own interpretations,)

How much of any of these intentions are knowable without Malick shedding light on them (he continues to decline interviews and public appearances) is an open question and, in any event, not as interesting as the themes he's teasing out: God, forgiveness, nature, science, love, sex, companionship.

Bale did say that he thought Malick’s improvisational style of shooting was reaching new heights.

“With 'The New World,' we at least had a script,” Bale said, alluding to his collaboration with the director a decade ago. “We didn’t pay much attention to it, but we had it," he added. "With this, we really just had ideas, general ideas Terry would talk to me about.”

Malick, he said, preferred to embrace the off-balance approach he's become known for lately. “The mantra was ‘Let’s start before we're ready,’” Bale said. “He would just be interested in exploring and seeing what happens. He would even give me a camera, a GoPro, and tell me to go out and shoot and see what I could find. It was more like life itself -- let’s not plan it; let’s just investigate.”

After “Tree” gained art-house and Academy Award acclaim, some were disappointed that, far from taking the currency gained from that mainstream acceptance and putting it to more accessible use, Malick made “To the Wonder," pushing further into his mode of free-form inquiry.

“Cups,” which will be distributed in the U.S. by startup company Broad Green Pictures, won’t win over these people, who might once again use phrases like “self-indulgent” or “not engaging” to describe his work. One can understand, on some level, why Malick frustrates people -- in a world of constant and complex narrative, it can seem quaint or even weird to practice this quiet form of metaphysical exploration.

But engagement is hardly the point, and it would be no wiser to evaluate a Malick movie for its story potential than it would be to look to a poem for mathematical truths. In some cases, leaning back and letting the mind wander to big ideas is the point.

That doesn’t mean that "Knight of Cups" doesn’t reward intense concentration, or that it skimps on the visuals. In an era when Hollywood spends so much time and money on effects, each seemingly bigger and splashier and more jaw-dropping than the last, Malick seems to be offering an on-screen retort. That all has its place, he argues. But visuals aren’t meant just to wow us. Sometimes they're meant to elevate or intrigue. Sometimes they're supposed to make us think. Sometimes they’re even used for cinematically counterintuitive purposes, like illuminating a quest for the divine.

Indeed, what "Cups" might most lay bare is the spiritual melancholy of Malick's modern work, a sense of a man who realizes he may never find what he’s seeking, but to stop trying would be tragic. After all these decades, and now all these films, Malick is still looking. In the process he keeps finding new things, and new ways to tell us about them. Long may he search.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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