The last word uttered in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” — whispered in voice-over, like most of the other speech in the movie — is “begin.” Curiously enough, that is also the penultimate word of “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
This juxtaposition is less far-fetched than you might suppose. The concluding sentence of Philip Roth’s novel is a punch line, turning the tale that has come before into an extended Jewish joke. Mr. Malick’s film is not especially comical, and he is surely one of the least Jewish directors in the annals of American cinema, but his ending has a similarly startling effect. We’ve been watching a man’s life — his sex life, in particular — unspool before our eyes, only to learn that we haven’t even gotten started. Or that he hasn’t.
In “Knight of Cups,” the man’s name is Rick, and he is played, with mopey eyes, a diffident half-smile and a scruff-bedecked chin, by Christian Bale. Rick is a Hollywood screenwriter who seems stuck in the long second act of his mortal script. The questions of how to begin, how to proceed, haunt him, and determine the elusive structure of the film’s narrative. Its title is drawn from the tarot deck, as are the titles of its constitutive sections: “The Moon,” “The Hanged Man,” “The High Priestess,” among others. This suggests that the order of events may be random, serendipitous, a matter of occult meaning rather than chronological sequence.
And yet, at the same time, a linear direction to Rick’s wanderings is implied by the invocation, early and late, of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” We must be going somewhere, toward some place of redemption. Bunyan’s allegorical City of Destruction — and also, perhaps, the Celestial City that is its antithesis — is incarnated by modern Los Angeles. Its architecture, its vegetation and its light are all exquisitely rendered by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who just won his third consecutive Oscar. Los Angeles, like Paris and Manhattan, is vulnerable to cinematic cliché and at the same time, through the right eyes, endlessly resistant to it. Mr. Lubezki can infuse Sunset Boulevard, Venice Beach and other often-filmed spots with a beauty that feels erotic and metaphysical at the same time.
As it happens, the confusion of eros and cosmos — or maybe, to be generous, their mutual entanglement — is Rick’s big problem, and also Mr. Malick’s. At its most literal level, “Knight of Cups” is an encyclopedia of its protagonist’s love affairs, casual and serious, painful and frolicsome, blonde and brunette. There are threesomes, pillow fights, rooftop debauches and skinny-dipping parties. Also a marriage (to Cate Blanchett), an affair with someone else’s wife (Natalie Portman) and a trip to Las Vegas with a stripper (Teresa Palmer) who drops pearls of wisdom from the edge of the stage.
Layered into these episodes are invocations of Rick’s childhood and family life, which make clear his kinship with the main character in “The Tree of Life,” and thus with Mr. Malick himself. Rick grew up with two brothers. One of them has died, and the other (Wes Bentley) is a tormented soul, with a suggested history of addiction and instability. Their father (Brian Dennehy, in effect playing Brad Pitt’s role in the earlier movie) is full of grief and regret, and the ache at the center of Rick’s existence seems to arise from the inadequacy of paternal and fraternal love.
That would be a plausible psychological interpretation, in any case, but Mr. Malick has always been more interested in states of being than in cause and effect. His philosophical temperament and his sensual disposition can produce work of haunting, almost ecstatic power — I certainly feel that way about “The Tree of Life” — but in “Knight of Cups,” as in “To the Wonder,” the deployment of beauty strikes me as more evasive than evocative.
And the deployment of beauties is more exploitative than anything else. The nameless, voiceless, topless women — whose lithe bodies at once symbolize Rick’s existential quest and distract him from it — might as well be premium-cable eye candy. Like Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” “Knight of Cups” settles into a lukewarm bath of male self-pity, a condition perhaps more deserving of satire than sanctification. Rick mopes and mutters through an elegantly appointed malaise, wandering the desert in an Armani jacket and driving aimlessly in his midnight-blue vintage convertible. In the room, the women come and go. It’s all very poetic and rarely boring, except maybe to Rick himself. But it’s hard to trust his anguish and hard not to suspect that what is being solicited is not your empathy but your envy.
“Knight of Cups” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). I don’t know, maybe they just didn’t feel like getting dressed. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.