There have been filmmakers over the years whose movies we know from the get go are not conventional. And by that we are not going to get the usual kind of story telling, films whose visual style alone are going to test both understanding and patience and even push the boundaries of conventional artistic film making. I’d have to say Kubrick is the master of this, Israeli director Amos Gital is another but the most recent name to be in this mix is the one and only Terrance Malick. A filmmaker whose films are sights to behold and stories test intellectual boundaries.
How many of us have marveled at the beauty of “Days of Heaven,” been impressed with the allegory of violence and destruction in nature with “The Thin Red Line,” or maybe even saw their jaws drop at the beauty of “The New World” Since then he brought his mix of philosophy and poetry into new realms that mixed science and wonder with his masterpiece “Tree of Life” and the deeply underrated “To The Wonder.” And I have to be perfectly honest his films were some of the films that inspired me to follow or even write films and I honestly thought he could do no wrong. Well nobody’s perfect.
The fault of the film isn’t in it’s odd poetic dialogue, that’s a Malick trademark (“where have you gone my son?/the stars, from here, I cry” “Don’t threaten to leave/my love/my heart”) or it’s eccentric acting, jumpy editing all of these are things you expect from Malick. The fault is the story itself. It’s far to drawn, far too off beat and way, way, way too smug for it’s own good.
Basically long time Malick collaborator Christian Bale plays a movie ex who’s caught up in a world of parties, sex, womanizing and excess that draws a wedge between him and his wife and forces him to choose between a life of his wife/ex-wife Cate Blanchett or his world of excess. Along the way he consorts with off beat eccentrics and loose beat L.A. citizens in the form of Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer and Imogen Poots. All the while trying to reconnect to his estranged brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy). And keeping up his love for his girlfriend Elizabeth played by the ALWAYS gorgeous Natalie Portman. All set against the almost ethereal backdrop of the always exotic Los Angeles. Confused yet? You should be?
But what does it mean? What do you think? What is that supposed to say? What do you think? Are you even more confused yet? You should be but you shouldn’t? And that is the biggest problem with this outing by Malick. He’s gotten deeper than normal almost off the wall in a way. Trying to make a film that shows how the material world and desire separates man from the spiritual world but really does every character have to be just so, offbeat that you don’t even care?
Basically Bale is just a sad sack of a man who goes from one place to another, messes with one girl then another, and sees one weird building then another. I know Malick likes to have his narratives subjective, you the audience figures it out, but that doesn’t mean Mr. Malick that every single person has to be eccentric, or every angle has to be seen through a window, or every woman has to be nude. Just witness a scene where someone is on a balcony naked, why……….if even I figure it out, I’ll tell you. But all of this just doesn’t help the story on any level it’s just there to try and make us feel some sort of shame for our lives. Well, that never works doesn’t matter who it is, it just never works.
But credit has to go to another Malick collaborator cracker jack cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, red hot off his third straight Oscar win who beautifully illuminates the city and landscapes in and around Los Angeles. He shoots with that of a true artist an almost poets eye for finding beauty in the most obscure. From sunlight through a tunnel, to a plane flying from LAX, to a tryst on a beach, everything is breathtakingly amazing and I’m sure this might get him his fourth Oscar. And of course there is my FAVORITE actress the one and only Natalie Portman! Serving to the story what women often serve as in a Malick piece, an angelic Earth mother. She brings warmth, almost sensuous presence it reminds me more and more of Audrey Hepburn. Sadly Malick miscasts her and doesn’t use her till almost the final act of the film. Sad.
But all in all the final fault of the disappointment rests on that of Malick himself. An art director that has let his critical acclaim go to his head thinking we will just eat it no matter what. Wrong, so wrong. Oh well he has another due later this year also with Mrs. Portman, maybe that will redeem him?
2 ½ out of 4 stars
By Jason Greathouse