Many years ago, I had a friend tell me that Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” was his favorite song, because he could so relate to it. His take was that it was about having a rich, varied life, but one that was totally out of the control of the person living it. Full of new experiences and journeys, but without any say in where those journeys led.
That take came to my mind repeatedly while watching Terrence Malick’s newest movie, a bold and compelling film from the maker of 1973’s “Badlands” and 2011’s “Tree of Life” among not enough others. As portrayed by Christian Bale, who, as is often the case, does a lot by doing very little, Rick (given no last name) is the essence of that dilemma. A successful screenwriter whose life is an endless array of parties, beautiful women and back lots filled with agents making million dollar deals, he has, on the surface, the perfect life. Yet the surface is where it stops. Whether sipping champagne at a huge Hollywood Hills estate or sitting on ratty furniture in a downtown loft with his downwardly-mobile brother, he wears the same blank expression. It’s clear his life has lost all meaning. Or as Rick puts it in one of many voiceovers, while the camera pans past a surreal montage of childhood memories, “all those years living the life of someone I didn’t even know.”
Malick’s camera does little to normalize anything or ease the malaise. Almost every shot is either wide enough, or close enough, that little can be discerned. It’s all micro or macro: all background, no detail. One early scene, in fact, replete with narration from John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” is shot from outer space – a blur of lights below, and clouds and stars above, that is an apt metaphor for Rick’s psychic condition – an eternity so vast and unknowable that it defies not only explanation, but obvious purpose.
In a series of chapters, each tied to a different symbolic card from the tarot deck (announced by fanciful silent-movie title cards), we meet a different person that represents an influence on Rick’s life. That most are portrayed by powerful Hollywood stars only adds to the surreal feel. There’s Imogen Poots as a free-spirited fellow partier, Cate Blanchett as a doctor dealing with patients afflicted with extreme bodily deformities (under the card “judgement”) and Teresa Palmer as a spirited stripper who intersperses her act with probing insights into Rick’s character. Also featured are his brother and father, mostly shown having violent arguments with one another in front of Rick. (Brian Dennehy as the father – named, appropriately, Joseph – gives a particularly strong performance.)
There’s also a dizzying series of pop culture cameos including Fabio, fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone playing an exaggerated version of herself, and Antonio Banderas as a playboy whose cultivated superficiality creates a neat parallel for Rick’s acquired version of the same.
It all adds up to a bewildering array and variety of images that, common to Malick’s movies, comes with little specificity attached. Surprisingly, at a shade over 2 hours, and with a very detached arty style, it never gets boring. While it can be a bit impenetrable, it’s the kind of movie that will leave you thinking and discussing for days after viewing. Despite its star power and interior look at the artifice of Hollywood – except for a few short scenes set in Las Vegas and St. Louis, respectively, it is all set in LA, in a series of locations both nondescript and iconic – it is a decidedly un-Hollywood movie. The level of ‘insiders’ willing to help Malick make his ‘outsider’ movie is likely a tribute to the appropriately high regard in which he’s held.
“Knight of Cups“ is showing locally.