Well, I was warned. I read all the bad reviews and mournful reviews, people who wanted desperately to like it and didn’t, and yet I still wanted to see it. I thought “I love stories about alienation in Hollywood, so I’ll be able to sit through anything.” I also was realistic that the film would be very loose in terms of story, and might be [like Tree of Life and To the Wonder] quite low on story and characterization, but even so, I was prepared to just space out, take in whatever I could, and was hoping to have an emotional more than intellectual experience. So I tried! I even made time in the middle of the day, because, after being out only a week, it was only showing at 1:30pm. And I am sorry to report to you that, unfortunately, it really is an empty exercise that probably has meaning to Malick and those involved in its production, but unlikely anyone else. And it probably shouldn’t have been released at all.
First, understand that this film is even MORE impressionistic than To the Wonder. There are no scenes, in the sense of a scene where something happens that advances the plot and builds on other scenes to move the story forward. That’s because there is no story to move. There is also no dialogue. There are lines spoken and often whispered [inaudibly], we see people talking to or yelling at each other, but often without hearing what they’re saying. Sounds ultra avant-garde, right? No scenes? No dialogue? No story? You have to give they guy credit for making something like this—I guess. I was hoping it would all add up to something that worked at the emotional, rather than intellectual level—the way The Tree of Life had me weeping inconsolably at incongruent moments—but no, I'm afraid it really is just a succession of sequences that don’t add up to anything [or anything interesting]. I hope that in 20 years I discover that I was completely wrong, but… I won’t be laying any bets on that.
The title and several titles that appear throughout the film are from tarot cards, which hint at, as the tagline says: “a quest,” which would ascribe to the film much more structure than it actually has. The whole thing also had me constantly remembering a late-night commercial for a telephone tarot reader who would say “The Three of Hearts…. You will soon fall madly in love! The Two of Cups… you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams!” Anyway, we hear a quote at the beginning from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” about a journey, then a voiceover tells us as a boy he was told a story about a boy looking for a pearl, who was given a drink from a cup that wiped his memory. This is back when you’re thinking all of this stuff is going to come together in some way.
So we’re seeing Christian Bale as a Hollywood guy. We never find out what he does. We see him drunk at parties, cavorting with beautiful women [there will be much cavorting with beautiful women], going to an aquarium, driving with a pretty ingénue, and going to the beach, either alone, or with someone. He wanders around studio lots. He is at his apartment when a mild earthquake strikes. Then there’s a short while in which he is hanging with whom I’ll call “eyeliner girl,” who waves her arms around like a free spirit, poses at parking garages, wanders around hotel rooms, tells him “I think you’re weak,” stands at the waterline at the beach, then vanishes. Then Wes Bentley shows up as his brother [they do look quite alike], and they go up an industrial elevator, walk around LA, skateboard around an empty loft, etc. Soon we’re wandering through an office where Brian Dennehey is there as their dad, who washes his hands in a sink full of blood. Then Cate Blanchett is around, possibly as Bale’s ex-wife, being irritable and petulant, wandering around a beautiful house, and with him at the beach [understand that every combination of people in this film all go to the beach at least once]. Then he dates a stripper for a while and they go to Las Vegas [and the beach]. Then he’s with Natalie Portman for a while, and they have fun for a while and then she is feeling bad and crying, often on the beach. Then there’s a new blonde woman at the end. They cavort, and go to the beach. At the end, Bale is alone, at the beach.
By this time I was like “Dude, if you go to that fucking beach one more time…” This is the only thing this movie caused me to feel.
There are a few, very few, things that make an impression. The main one is the constant procession of pretty, very skinny women. They’re all model-thin and they all wear lingerie and all seem desperately needy for attention, but we can’t really judge anything about their characters since they rarely have dialogue, and no one, not Blanchett, not Portman, get what could be termed a “scene.” So at first you’re like “A-ha! Endless procession of pretty women!” But it doesn’t go any further than that, and by the end it’s starting not to really seem like Malick sees this as a problem so much as something kind of awesome. But we can’t really conclude anything about the film with confidence, because it doesn’t give us enough. Other than that, you know, alienation, ennui, feeling alone in a crowd, getting shitfaced, going to the beach, walking on the beach, diving into the surf at the beach, walking along the waterline at the beach, being with one of the interchangeable women at the beach, being alone at the beach. The end. The final chapters are titled “Death” and then “Freedom,” as though something has happened, but nothing has actually happened.
There’s simply not enough here. You can make some shallow impressions, but we don’t know anything about the characters and their relationships. We know nothing about our main character, we don’t know where people are, where they’ve come from and where they’re going… and ultimately this shorts out our ability to feel anything or be involved in the film, as it’s just a procession of images with no meaning. I can see where someone might think that you could strip a film down to its barest elements and it could become a conduit for pure emotion, but Malick has now officially charted out the limits of that approach. The Tree of Life hit the bullseye. To the Wonder was a bit too far, but still had enough that we could follow and get involved. This film is so bare-bones it’s impossible to get involved or engaged in any way.
Please do not miss the point that this film is SIGNIFICANTLY less involving than To the Wonder. A film that sucked. And why, Why, WHY must this be two full hours? You could cut, oh I don't know, an hour and fifty minutes out of it and still have the same movie. By the way, if you want to see a statement of Hollywood alienation that will leave you with several potent images and give you several vivid "Feels" [as the kids are saying these days] and is still a challenging film, go for David Cronenberg's rather incredible Maps to the Stars.
A reader posted on Facebook something to the effect that “If you had ever told me there would come a day that I would not want to see a Romero zombie movie, and where Terence Malick would be pumping out films I have no interest in…” and well, truer words were never said. That day is here. These are indeed the end times.
No, you really shouldn’t. You think you should, but you shouldn’t.