After making lyrical, rapturous films set in the Pacific theater of World War II ("The Thin Red Line") and Jamestown ("The New World"), Terrence Malick has steadily moved closer to present day and his own stories, too. In a trilogy of films, he's sought to use all the sensory and symphonic powers of cinema to illuminate personal pasts — his Texas childhood, an ill-fated romance in Paris, hedonistic success in Hollywood — like shimmering kaleidoscopes of memory. Proust would have really dug it.
Along the way, Malick has astonished and confounded, and in the relative rush — three films in five years follow four in three decades — he has lost some admirers who have watched his pursuits of transcendence become too dreamy-eyed, too banal to inspire the same adulation the revered filmmaker previously enjoyed.
"Knight of Cups" — deeply felt, wholly admirable, unmoving — furthers the trend. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter whose breakthrough success has brought him riches, women and existential emptiness. Like Malick's two previous films — "The Tree of Life," the astonishing father-son tale writ across the cosmos, and the less successful love story "To the Wonder" — "Knight of Cups" is made in an impressionistic style all Malick's own that has begun to feel, despite its earnest yearning, artificial.
The story rarely unfolds through dialogue, action or anything like humor, but through meditative voice-over and montage in beautiful imagery (lensed by the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the great capturer of natural light) that expresses the inner thought and memories of Rick (Bale). He spends much of the film wandering: through a decadent Los Angeles pool party, a dayglow strip club, a vacant studio back lot. There's a series of romances played by Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, as his ex-wife doctor.
It's a modern telling of the prodigal son fable set in glitzy Hollywood; Rick is introduced as a sleeping prince who drank from a poison cup. It's one of Malick's most elementally composed films — all earth, sea and sky — full of contrasts between desert and water. Early on, a view from on high captures the glowing arc of the globe, flickering with rivers of Northern Lights.
Rick, we piece together, has two brothers, one of whom died of suicide at a young age. Brian Dennehy plays his disapproving father and Wes Bentley his living brother.
While little is known about the famously private Malick, the same fate befell a brother of his. The film's backdrop, too, bears touches of autobiography. Malick famously fled the industry after making two '70s classics ("Badlands," ''Days of Heaven"), not to return again for 20 years. His aim here is broader than a Hollywood critique, but it's not surprising that he would find it soulless.
"Do you see the palm trees?" one character asks. "They tell you (that) you can be anything." Antonio Banderas has an especially good cameo, lecturing at a poolside soiree to "treat the world as it deserves." The fleeting images can be inspiring, like an underwater slow-motion shot of a dog diving into a pool for a ball.
Malick is a filmmaker of great contradiction: an art-house powerhouse whose casts are littered with A-listers; an experimental auteur whose films, for all their philosophizing, are pure and simple; a romantic naturalist of considerable style. He's best when he narrows his sights and compels his characters into action. A script is a tenuous, forgotten thing in any Malick production, but "Knight of Cups" was made without one, and the film often feels like a series of acting exercises for thinly conceived archetypes.
The brooding Bale is perhaps a little too well-suited for such meandering (though the film gets a kick from the steely presence of Blanchett). One narration sums up the film, where Rick laments that he's been sleepwalking, "in love with the world, in love with love."
"Knight of Cups" is a vivid collage that ultimately doesn't take form. But Malick's ambition for higher meaning and purer cinematic expression remains enthralling. For better and worse, his cup overflows.
"Knight of Cups," a Broad Green Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some nudity, sexuality and language." Running time: 118 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP