#7 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
This is often called Malick’s movie of ennui, and I sort of agree with that label. I think it’s more about the emptiness of materialism, though. It’s funny. Malick’s been making movies since the early 70s, and he made a single movie in Hollywood, this one, and it’s about how life in the modern world is an empty spectacle of carnal delights that leads to nothing because it is a soulless exercise. I have the sneaking suspicion that Malick is not a fan of Hollywood. He probably much prefers Texas.
So, it’s obvious to me how Malick built this film. He had access to Christian Bale over the course of a few months a few days at a time, and he had access to a selection of other actors and actresses for a day or two here and there. Using his captured moment approach to filmmaking, he largely improvised a series of scenes with his actors, and then he spent a couple of years editing it all together. With the disconnected pieces he collected (none of the named actresses share a single scene, for instance), Malick assembled a story about a disconnected existence, and I think it works rather well. It’s far from his best work, but it’s an experiment that ends up having something interesting on its mind.
Rick, Christian Bale, is a Hollywood producer who drifts through his life with little to no attachments. Pulling from Malick’s own biography again, Rick is one of three brothers, one of whom committed suicide at 19. His surviving brother is a recovering drug addict while their father wonders how he went so wrong raising two young men so disconnected from him and their past. Rick moves from studio lot, barely participating in contract negotiations, to photo shoots, where he picks up a woman he met at a party, and parties. He collects and discards women without any real concern for who they are or what they might mean to him. Among them are his ex-wife, a young punk rocker chick, a stripper, and an attractive married woman. He never seems to connect with them, sharing moments of frivolity and sex along with the trademarked twirls in curtains that Malick had become so fond of, but they suddenly disappear from his life the second they bring up something serious.
He doesn’t want connections, and yet he’s still unhappy. He has no material wants being well off, but the material he does collect ends up providing him with no real nourishment. The second he’s offered something more, he’s off to find another party to drift through and the woman never shows up again. He even ends up in a literal desert towards the end, bereft of any meaning to his life.
All of this is told in Malick’s dreamlike, handheld, Steadicam style. The pieces need stitching together with voiceover, another trademark of his, and so it seems to show off its seams to the world. So, I’m of the mind that it becomes an intentional choice to demonstrate the seams, knowing that they are there, by creating a story in editing about a life sewn together from disparate material pieces that can’t come together into a cohesive whole because they end up demonstrating emptiness. In other words, I understand the movie’s detractors but I simply don’t agree with them. This may not be a masterpiece by Malick, but it’s definitely intentionally doing something stylistically and thematically at the same time that end up complimentary.
Ultimately, this kind of ends up as the opposite of To the Wonder. In the previous film, the main character, Neil, was largely a cipher and Marina was the main focus. Here, Rick is nearly silent like Neil, but his inner pain is still the focus. He’s empty himself with little thoughts, but the women around him are material things to him, not real people. Their lack of development or time to shine on screen (Natalie Portman has what appears to be a heartbreaking moment late in the film that gets largely overlooked) is all because Rick himself is uninterested. He doesn’t care about these women as living beings, just another thing for him to have and then toss away. His nearly empty apartment is another manifestation of his emptiness this way. It has classy objects, but no pictures of any kind. It could be a hotel room, and when some robbers break in and find nothing to steal, it highlights how Rick is nothing at his core.
Interestingly, the movie ends with Rick leaving Hollywood and Los Angeles as an escape. Seriously, I think Malick hates the place. It seems rare to have a film made about the empty materialism of Hollywood and the film industry as well as the modern age, but Malick did it. It’s a rough work that betrays its fractured production, but it’s also intelligently assembled in the end. It certainly lacks a lot of the emotional punch of Malick’s other films, but it’s not really supposed to, I think.