Terrence Malick has been on a filmmaking tear, most recently releasing Song to Song. He’s back, but that hasn’t dulled his skepticism about the film industry.
Brett McCracken sees Malick’s earlier Knight of Cups as, in part, a reflection of Malick’s “complicated relationship with Hollywood”: “Malick’s critique of Hollywood, as a sort of stand-in for the larger spiritual ‘searches’ of mankind, comes into focus. Hollywood is a dream factory, a purveyor of fantasies and searches for holy grails (or mystical “pearls”). Southern California’s mythic status as the place where dreams come true, where the sun never sets, reinforces the mystique. But the images of Hollywood and our broader media environment deceive and disappoint when they are not icons pointing beyond themselves but idols to be worshiped in themselves.”
Malick’s film-making techniques themselves offer a challenge to the Hollywood ethos: “In his notorious habit of hiring A-list actors for his films but then leaving them largely dialogue-less (or absent altogether) in the final cut, Malick is confronting the priorities of Hollywood’s cult of celebrity, which since the studio era has ordered the audience’s gaze mostly around ‘star power.’”
But McCracken recognizes that Malick’s critique is animated by a philosophical/religious outlook: “He dares the audience to look beyond the beautiful bodies and magnetic charisma of the ‘stars’ and instead to see the beauty around the periphery: the animals, the plants normally relegated to the background, the unknown actor, those with disabled and deformed bodies (see particularly Wonder), every leaf and every ray of God’s light.”