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Movie Review

‘Knight of Cups,’ starring Christian Bale, gets lost in Los Angeles

Christian Bale stars in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.”
Christian Bale stars in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.”(Melinda Sue Gordon/Broad Green Pictures)

With “Knight of Cups,” the visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick continues the strange, perverse process of simultaneously refining and diminishing his vision. He seems to be working ever closer to some kind of ur-movie in his head — the film he has always wanted to see and maybe even be. But he’s also in danger of working his way down to an audience of one.

Perhaps that’s cruel. The new film has been playing around the festival circuit and the European theatrical market since last year, and there are many who find it a rapture. “Knight of Cups” is certainly a thing of visual beauty, photographed by the now three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Revenant”) with the breathtaking third-eye clarity he brought to Malick’s “The New World,” “The Tree of Life,” and “To the Wonder.” Lubezki is arguably this movie’s secret star, and he invests the movie’s Los Angeles settings with the strangeness and newness of a NASA rover traveling across Mars.

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Christian Bale is the actual star of “Knight of Cups” as Rick, a powerful Hollywood screenwriter whom we never see put a word to page, literal, digital, or otherwise. He is existentially unmoored; like the lost men played by Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in “The Tree of Life” and Ben Affleck in “To the Wonder,” Rick whispers his thoughts on the soundtrack in the form of banal misgivings and insights, a secret counterpoint to his deluxe fashion spread of a life. “Knight of Cups” blurs the line between New Age spiritualism and high-end advertising; it both condemns and celebrates the emptiness of beautiful forms.

Many of those forms are female. Malick loves beauty the way a classicist does, and that extends to the gorgeous bursts of symphonic music that punctuate “Knight of Cups” and to the actresses who parade across the film’s lovely, windswept stage as Rick’s varied partners. The movie takes its title from a card in the Tarot deck — drawn right side up, the Knight of Cups signals change and new romance; upside down, it can mean risk, recklessness, losing one’s way —and a different card announces each new chapter and love interest throughout the film.

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Cate Blanchett appears as Rick’s ex-wife, brooding and bitter, and Natalie Portman plays a married woman with whom he has an affair that turns tragic. Imogen Poots is a punkette; Teresa Palmer is a stripper who accompanies Rick to Vegas. Freida Pinto (”Slumdog Millionaire”) has been cast as a model who peers through his studied cool to the wracked nonentity beneath; her scenes, including a tartly ridiculous photo shoot, are among the few in which “Knight of Cups” rouses itself to genuine life.

After a while, the monolithic feminine beauty begins to seem like a bore, a brag, eventually an affront. Malick sees his movies as legends, and the people in legends are always paragons of physical perfection. What’s missing from “Knight of Cups” — what has been consciously purged from it — is the splattery mess of life itself. I prayed in vain for an actress like Melissa McCarthy to turn up as Rick’s latest girlfriend, the one with a pulse and a personality and a body that took her out of the movie’s statue garden and down to the crowded beach below.

But that might require Rick to be an actual character instead of the filmmaker’s digital ghost. Since returning from his self-imposed 20-year exile, with “The Thin Red Line,” in 1998, Malick has been jettisoning plot for impressionism, momentum for stasis, and individualism for a cave of shadows in which every hero’s a pale version of his maker. This can work, and it did work in “Tree of Life,” mostly, because the ravishing seemed freshly felt and the crazy touches, such as a side-trip to the Jurassic Era, had poetic resonance and heft.

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“Knight of Cups” feels attenuated and generic by comparison, even though — oh, irony — it’s apparently Malick’s most personal venture yet, a holy Zen tea party to which he has invited his demons. Brian Dennehy turns up as Rick’s angry failure of a father and Wes Bentley as his screw-up of a brother; Dennehy is allowed some dour voice-over musings, but onscreen the two rage in silence while the movie turns up the classical music on the soundtrack. Either Malick already knows what they’re saying or he doesn’t want to hear it.

(He does, however, give screentime to Peter Matthiessen, the legendary American novelist — and actual Zen priest — in a terrifically moving sequence shot not long before the writer’s death at 86 in 2014.The old man has a uniqueness, an irreducible, lived-in presence, that makes all the other characters in “Knight of Cups” look like the improvised mannequins they are.)

Elsewhere, the movie takes on the Hollywood scene that Malick views as a glamorous void and which he apparently knows well enough to have cast a battalion of celebrities, vapid and not, as themselves. Antonio Banderas gets to play a fictional tycoon hosting a crowded, sybaritic party — and he’s touchingly sleazy, as if he’d wandered over from an Almodovar movie — but cameos by the likes of Ryan O’Neal, Fabio, Joe Mangianello, and dozens of other recognizable faces feel both acrid and exploitive. It’s as if Malick were saying, “Look at all the famous people I know! Aren’t they awful?”

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There are compensations, mostly on the film’s surface, like the slow-motion underwater sequence of dogs straining after tennis balls that may be a metaphor but works just fine on its own, thank you. The soundtrack wells up repeatedly with lushly orchestrated selections from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite,” which indicates that Rick may himself be meant as a Peer Gynt for 21st-century Southern California — the rascal boy who traveled the world and lost his way. With “Knight of Cups,” Terrence Malick may sincerely believe he has found his way again. He may not even care that he has lost us.

★ ★
KNIGHT OF CUPS

Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Freida Pinto. At Kendall Square. 118 minutes. R (nudity, sexuality, language, privileged maundering)


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.