Terrence Malick positions himself as a poet of the cinema, using imagery and mise-en-scène to convey meaning as opposed to story and dialogue. He’s had a critically acclaimed career, interrupted by a strange 20-year hiatus, that has ranged from his astonishing debut with “Badlands” (1973) to the visionary “Tree of Life” (2011).
His is an uncompromising cinema that refuses to yield to audience demands for easily understood stories and a clear viewpoint. His films fail to make viewers comfortable by deliberately remaining elusive although thematic refrains point to elements in his known biography — he is an obsessively private man as well.
The language of his films has moved further and further away from the language of theater and closer to music and poetry. They are now more steam-of-consciousness but do cling to a certain narrative that is more experimental than classical.
Since he works with only top Hollywood craftsmen — such as Emmanuel Lubezki, who just won his second consecutive Oscar for cinematography, and Jack Fisk, always his production designer — his films are ravishing to behold.
His new film and seventh feature, “Knight of Cups,” is stunning in that you could frame every shot and hang them all in a gallery of motion picture images to admire forever. Whether by the Southern California seaside or in downtown lofts, empty studio backlots or the neon nightscape of Las Vegas, you wonder at the compositions, lighting and extraordinary colors.
The film, however, feels like remnants from his search for meaning in “The Tree of Life,” a spiritual allegory about suffering and how to live one’s life, as a good Christian.
This time Malick sets his search seemingly in Hollywood itself. I say seemingly since it follows a writer Rick (Christian Bale) on a hallucinatory journey through the landscapes of Los Angeles and Las Vegas and their mansions, beaches, clubs and resorts.
Hollywood personalities such as Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Wagner or actual dealmakers such as Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess people the background while locations feature identifiable studios around town. At one point, Rick wanders through a movie set although why an actor is costumed as a cowboy is anybody’s guess.
Yet Rick never seems to write anything and the actors and agents and dealmakers are treated as objects just as those rocks in the desert or waves rolling to shore. Indeed his profession of screenwriter I got from production notes as he seems more like a director or actor in the way he behaves and how people react to him.
There are occasional voiceovers from material such as John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come” (1678) and snatches of dialogue that tell you that in Los Angeles “you can be anything you want.”
The latter, of course, is the original cliché about Southern California. So the thought does creep into your head that perhaps Malick avoids dialogue and acted scene because when his thoughts are put down in prose form they reek of the banal.
(Early in his career he did an uncredited draft of “Dirty Harry” and his “Badlands” tells a linear story with the young actors Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek so he at least once was capable of writing what one might call a conventional screenplay.)
Repetition happens not only with images but with characters and concepts. Here again, as in “Tree of Life,” is the loved and feared father figure, demanding, abrasive, affectionate, this time played as an older man by Brian Dennehy.
Again too is a brother lost to early tragic death. You know from what biography that does exist that one of Malick’s brothers died at an early age, apparently committing suicide.
Thus “Knight of Cups” (the title refers to the Tarot card depicting a romantic adventurer guided by his emotions) reveals itself in sly ways that are both highly protective of Rick’s inner life yet seemingly open to all his inadequacies and betrayals.
Six women parade through this movie, all beautiful, mostly very young and all seeking to somehow satisfy the restless, romantic soul of this Rick.
Cate Blanchett is the loving, highly intelligent ex-wife, a compassionate physician, who was never able to reach Rick. Natalie Portman is the married woman whose passion for Rick comes to anguished regret.
Freida Pinto is the elusive fashion model, Teresa Palmer a Vegas pole dancer and Imogen Poots and Isabel Lucas women not easily defined since they more or less repeat the same postures and poses of the previous women who frolic on beaches, in bedrooms and sports cars.
What Rick seeks in them, beyond the obvious which is sex and love, is never clear since the actions in their sequences are playfully juvenile except for Blanchett, who is serene and sometimes sad.
The film unrolls in visual contrasts — between desert and seaside, opulent interiors and downtown’s skid row — while broken into chapters named after tarot cards, such as “The Moon,” “The Hanged Man” and “The High Priestess” for no reason that can be discerned.
Questions abound in snatches of overheard dialogue: “Where should I meet you?” “Which way should I go?” Again a sense of a search that never is satisfied. And remains ever so.
Yet at this point Malick’s search has indeed reached a point and it is the one of diminishing returns. Laboring over thematic inquiries from previous films and treating movie stars as glamorized objects have its limits.
The rapture of the film’s first hour of images diminishes considerably in the second so you find your restless mind playing games like spot the location — hey, it’s the L.A. art district downtown or the Venice boardwalk or the Century City building housing powerful CAA — or wondering what production days were spent on car sequences for L.A. traffic to be so incredibly light.
The questions Malick seems to be pursuing, when they come into focus, are those that go back to the beginning of time, only highly aestheticized.
Realizing this, one loses contact with the film’s protagonist and his troubles and instead shifts focus to the hypnotic imagery. One falls out of the movie, in other words, and into the visual poetry created by Lubezki and a team of imaginative editors.
Opens: March 4, 2016 (Broad Green Pictures)
Production companies: Dogwood Pictures, Waypoint Entertainment
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Peter Matthiessen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Cherry Jones, Patrick Whitesell, Rick Hess, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinneman, Clifton Collins Jr., Nick Offerman, Jamie Harris, Lawrence Jackson, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Wagner, Jocelin Donahue, Nicky Whelan, Fabio
Director/screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green, Ken Kao
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Tanner Beard
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Music: Hanan Townsend
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Editors: Geoffrey Richman, Keith Fraase, A.J. Edwards
R rating, 118 minutes