Natalie Portman in Knight of Cups (Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures)

Natalie Portman in Knight of Cups (Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures)

When you hear the name Terrence Malick, you might register it only slightly (“He made Gates of Heaven, right, or what was it, Heaven’s Gate, no, no, oh yeah, *Days* of Heaven.”) Or you’ll have a reaction way that could easily be overwhelmingly positive or negative.

For me, I’m somewhat in the middle, depending on the film. He’s an artist who has stretched and contorted the boundaries of what’s expected in American narrative film, and particularly during the last 10 years, which have been the most prolific of his 43-year career. He challenges audiences while not being so aggressive like, for example, Jean-Luc Godard and his filmic experiments.

The Tree of Life marked a radical turn for the director, who used voice-over, meditative/poetic stanzas, and reminisces that conveyed moods and feelings as opposed to linear storylines, though it did have some cohesion around concrete themes. However, To the Wonder and somewhat by extension Knight of Cups are at times so obtuse as to be impenetrable for someone who may not tap into what is a hybrid, in a way, of documentary filmmaking and stream of consciousness narrative. While I was a little bothered by just how aimless To the Wonder seemed, even compared to past efforts, Knight of Cups fares a little better by focusing on Christian Bale’s character, Rick, and his spiritual/identity crisis.

Malick started his career as a screenwriter, and by accounts from several actors, he knows how to write well, but film by film, starting with Days of Heaven, he has drifted into improvisational forms of direction to the point that this film was shot without a script at all.

And yet it’s more cohesive than expected. The audience understands semblances of what has happened in and around Rick’s life (he’s an actor, I think) in Hollywood. We see him in an uneasy relationship with his brother (Wes Bentley), who has gone through some hard times, and in a few snatches of screen time with an (ex) wife played by Cate Blanchett. Studio execs or managers follow him about new deals or money to be made, and women go in and out of his life as if they’re songs on the radio.

Like other Malick films, narration connects parts of the movie, but loosely so. A stream of consciousness approach means that Knight is meant to resemble someone’s memories. And it’s not as if Malick can’t direct his actors in believable circumstances. At one point early on, Rick is in his bedroom and there’s an earthquake. It feels very real, likewise when robbers break into his house and hold him up for cash. Sometimes there are chapter titles, but they’re oblique about what they may mean. (“Death” and “Freedom” feel frankly like film school clichés.)

And then there are the many women and varieties of parties that Rick wanders through, whether it’s in Hollywood or Las Vegas. With Blanchett’s character, it’s at least clear that these two had a relationship and how it’s crumbled, and we know what Frieda Pinto’s Helen does for a living (modeling, as in an over-the-top bitchy photo shoot). But I’m not sure who Natalie Portman is supposed to be, despite seeming to be a major part of Rick’s love life (or is it just brief infatuation), or Teresa Palmer’s character.

If some passages fly over viewers’ heads on a first viewing, there is still the breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, loaded with flashes and dashes of colors that catch your attention. Lubezki is also having to improvise on the fly to the point that the movie takes on the feeling of just being there, whether it’s about real people interacting with the actors (Blanchett is a doctor for burn victims) or if it’s Bale wandering around a desert searching for… something.

It’s a work that I’m still trying to grapple with. On the one hand, there are many, many lines of narration that are actually profound or compelling (“Nobody cares about reality anymore,” says a stripper at one point) or quite the opposite (“Come out of the darkness into the light.”). And because the actors just barely know what they are doing on screen, there’s this sense that we, too, have to discover it along with them, whatever it might be.

That can be exciting, and there are even funny, heavily satirical moments of Hollywood excess and ennui. Think Stardust Memories with Bret Easton Ellis’s acid view of LA, though always the work of Malick. But it also can be exhausting. With Malick’s nonstructure structure, you never quite know when it will end, which was not the case with Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. For all you know, the wild lights and empty rooms and close-ups of Bale staring achingly into the sunset could last forever….

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Produced by Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green, and Ken Kao
Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki
Released by Broad Green Pictures
USA. 119 min. Rated R
With Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, and Imogen Poots