When I reviewed The Tree of Life (2011), I had no idea that Terrence Malick's career was moving in a radical new direction. After a rather traditional, though stylized, approach to Badlands (1973), Malick has demonstrated a preference for visual affect and sparse dialog rather than sticking to accustomed modes of narrative film-making. Days of Heaven (1978) featured extended shots of vast fields of grain in all kinds of wind and weather conditions. Thin Red Line (1998) treats the viewer to lush, lingering shots of Pacific islands with palm trees rustling in the wind. There is a clear narrative structure in each of Malick’s first four films but silence and nature are major aspects to them as well.
The same can be said for The New World (2005), only the narrative is becoming more minimal in that work and, but for the historical underpinnings of the story, it might have vanished altogether, giving way the force of the many moments of artsy natural cinematography. All these efforts, including, to a lesser extent, The Tree of Life, possess tangible, fairly pronounced narrative elements with traditional dialog exchanges, character development, and a plot that make the films accessible in varying degrees to the larger film going public.
I recently purchased Malick's follow-up efforts to The Tree of Life. To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015) sort of form a stylistic trilogy with that previous work but the most current two films push Malick's exploration for storytelling to the extreme. There is no real "plot" to either movie. Instead, they completely immerse the viewer in a visual experience, creating a mood without the aid of dialog scenes. Voice-over narration from the points of view of various characters is used to accompany the often stunning imagery to create a feeling more than tell a story. That sort of thing is a wonderful artistic experiment but it potentially alienates even the most ardent Malick aficionado, which is likely one reason these films never saw general release. Like The Tree of Life, they were shown in "limited release" mostly in art houses.
It is a fair assessment of both films to say that they feature major male leading-role actors who say virtually nothing throughout the course of the film except for brief moments of whimsical narration. Ben Affleck in To the Wonder and Christian Bale in Knight of Cups essentially spend the entire film staring into open spaces or minimally interacting with various other characters in shots that are often arresting in their sheer beauty. They are truly minimalized and marginalized, distilled down to the barest presentation, for the sake of Malick's larger vision of capturing a mood, a series of emotional scenes about modern human existence in nature.
Introspective, stream of consciousness narration fills the audio of these films with the actors merely moving around in front of the camera or the camera capturing some beautiful, simple naturalistic event. In a further minimalist touch, Malick limits the narration of the male characters. In both films, the female characters, by far, carry the weight of the voice-overs. Other than a constant on-screen presence, the utterances of Affleck and Bale are limited to a few dozen words of dialog and a handful of occasional voice-overs. All the rest of the spoken words are women.
In Jungian terms, Malick heavily favors the anima more than the animus aspect of the feelings he creates in these films. These are largely feminine achievements, favoring emotion against reason, nature against synthetic, and authenticity against artificiality. Malick attempt in both of these films to create a visual experience that affects the viewer emotionally without the aid of a solid story. I compared Malick to Kubrick in an earlier post. 2001 (1968) constantly comes to mind through the stylistic trilogy of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups. Visually intense but more so aesthetically arresting, as a manner of subduing all dialog in favor of the sheer beauty and unique sacredness of sight.
The “plot” of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups is rather basic, by necessity. But this means the viewer has to pay particular attention to what is being shown. If you look away for a minute or two because, in any other film, you would be listening to characters talking, then you will become disoriented as to what is happening on the screen. You will miss the details of what is happening in the minimal narrative.
In To the Wonder, Ben Affleck is involved with a French woman living in America with her daughter. The relationship is intimate and fulfilling but there are undercurrents of tension. Turns out the French woman and her daughter leave Affleck and return to Paris when her VISA expired. Affleck, along, soon finds a young American blonde woman and they proceed to have an intense relationship. She falls in love with him but, even though he is completely attracted to her, he can’t find a way to reciprocate her love. Ultimately, the second relationship doesn’t work out and the French woman decides to return to America, this time without her child, who she FaceTimes back in Paris. The couple return to a beautiful castle surrounded by a magnificent seaside nature space which they had first visited early in their magnetic relationship. The End.
The entire film is carried by narration. I bet there’s not 15 minutes of conversation in the movie all total. Since the French woman is from Paris, her narration is in French. The first 15-20 minutes of the film is in her voice, in French with English subtitles. Finally, well in, Affleck mumbles something and narration briefly shifts to his perspective. Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams do a great job carrying most of the movement and voice-over around the backbone that Affleck provides.
Knight of Cups is a bit more complex than that, but it still features lush visuals ensconced in a simple narrative. Christian Bale is a successful Los Angeles businessman, apparently in the fashion or advertising industry (the story is not clear on this detail). He is dealing with issues of his brother and his elderly father fighting all the time as a result tensions arising out of a third brother that died long ago. In the meantime, Bale lives out his private life, which consists of moving through one sensual relationship with beautiful women after another.
There are six such relationships in Knight of Cups, each actress handles her own narration with Bale occasionally chiming in from his perspective, again as supporting backbone and singular threat through the maze of women. Bale sleeps with only one woman at a time, he apparently prefers a kind of regimented monogamy. Each of the six women get about 10-15 minutes of total screen time. Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman are two of the women. The Portman sequence is the most complex one. She is married and having an affair with Bale who is completely single and committed to her, of course that doesn’t work out. The final sequence features Bale walking aimlessly on bald reddish rocks in the desert with the sound of wind prominent. Then a series of often striking shots of nature and highways through nature. The End.
“You’re so quiet. You keep everything to yourself.” That is part of the narration on Bale from one woman’s perspective. Well, thanks for stating the obvious. Both films feature leading male roles made almost inconsequential but for the thread they form in the narrative. It is as if our main character is engulfed in all the supporting characters in each film. This is rather fascinating in and of itself and is a pioneering, ballsy move on the part of Malik.
Even so, I cannot rank either of these films very highly. They get a 7 at most, maybe a 6. They are often tedious, somewhat pretentious slogs through very little actually happening. But they are also both feasts for the eyes and have a strangely emotive affect if can allow your mind to connect with their ethereal presentation. The Tree of Life is the best of this trilogy, and perhaps the best Malik film, though I immensely enjoy Thin Red Line as well. To the Wonder and Knight of Cups are ultimately experiments, perhaps leading to something more magnificent in the future, perhaps just the residue of Malik’s more successful efforts in The Tree of Life.