A quarter of the way through Knight of Cups, I was despondent with the thought that Terrence Malick will probably never make a great film again for the rest of his career. Halfway through Knight of Cups, I was convinced that I was watching the most important film of the 21st Century. By the end of the movie, I had no goddamn idea about anything, anymore - Knight of Cups doesn't make it easy on the sympathetic viewer by dumping its very worst material out fairly near the end, so it's still echoing as you depart the film. But the best moments are staggering, and the film's critical paddling a disappointment, though not a surprising one.

There is one primary sin Knight of Cups commits that colors everything else about it. This is, to almost all intents and purposes, an avant-garde feature, in which human movement within the frame and the edges of the frame are infinitely more important than what those humans are doing or what that frame depicts. It is as close to purely visual art as any commercially-released film has been in an very long time, a thing to be engaged with first and above all by looking at it rather than watching it, if you follow my meaning. The problem, and by no means a little one, is that Malick chickens out: Knight of Cups has a message and psychological insights presented in a straightforward narrative style (though it does not, as far as I can make out, have a narrative), and I would strenuously argue that it would be better off without those things. It would especially be better off without those things given that the message and insights in Malick's screenplay are profoundly dull-witted and trite.

As a storytelling object, Knight of Cups is the tale of Rick (Christian Bale), a writer suffering from deep-set sadness and ennui following the death of one of his brothers, which has led him, his other brother (Wes Bentley), and their father (Brian Dennehy) to drift apart. To paper over the emotional void left behind by this loss, Rick floats around Los Angeles, soaking in the party culture of that city, and seducing many of its women; the plot of the film, however loosely-defined, concerns six romantic/sexual partners Rick has, presented in what certainly does not seem to be chronological order or with any kind of cause & effect relationship between scenes. These women are to various degrees insufficient to cure Rick's malaise, just as he is in turn unable to provide whatever emotional truth they're looking for. And so he shuffles through the city (and later, Las Vegas), being mournful and detached from society.

"Sad man made sadder by emotionally vacant fucking" hasn't been cutting-edge cinema since Antonioni grew bored with the subject in the 1960s, and Knight of Cups is certainly not the film to restore some luster to the theme. I wish, very badly, that it didn't try to. As it is, plonking out the "plot" of the film in a big wad like that, it looks like that's what matters, and I found it very much did not - it was a distraction, often an easy one to avoid, from the much richer and more powerful sensory experience that actually does matter. Or, for that matter, the more distant, abstract spiritual philosophy that also exists at the level of narrative, but not in such a hackneyed way as the Rick and his Six Women structure. As is maybe obvious from the title, particularly if you are a '60s hippie turned film director who also taught university-level philosophy courses, and less for just about everybody else, Knight of Cups is about the tarot deck. Rick is the titular Knight, and the film is divided into eight chapters, seven named after cards in the major arcana, the last titled "Freedom", and is accordingly the point at which Rick is able to break out from the rigidity of his life. For what seems like an almost totally insoluble film, Knight of Cups thus turns out to be almost boringly straightforward. Assuming, of course, that you have an immediately-accessible working knowledge of the tarot deck and occult philosophy, which is possibly an assumption that Malick oughtn't make. But even just a quick glance through Wikipedia after I'd seen the movie did a powerful lot to help snap it into place.

Each card corresponds to one of the women Rick has known, or to other significant figures he encounters during his days of ennui, but it is probably better to say that those people embody the principles that English-language occultists ascribe to the cards in question. These really aren't people not even (or especially) Rick; they are nodes in an argument that meanders from place to place, sometimes sparking with amazing insight and sometimes droning like a college stoner. The sheer glut of voiceover - extreme even by Malick standards - encourages the feeling that we are watching humanoid ideas rather than legitimate humans.

Does it work? I don't know. It's certainly prone to being overheated, but name me one other movie that would try to play around with these ideas. Be that as it may, "film which dramatises the symbolic representations in the tarot deck" is esoteric as all hell and enormously limiting, and while I think it maybe makes Knight of Cups intriguing, it's not really enough to make it interesting. And that's what brings us to the way the film was shot, and the way it is edited, and the music playing underneath. At which point I can be rightly accused of burying the lede, because honestly, at the level of pure aesthetic, Knight of Cups is honest-to-God revelatory: a film that only Terrence Malick could have conceived, and which feels unlike anything else he's done. Considering that both films are primarily noteworthy for how much they do not feel like the rest of what's out there, I shouldn't compare it to David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, but it's the only comparison I feel safe making: both are films by great visual artists who frequently obfuscate or eschew narrative going all the way into the avant-garde, both are trivially based in the spiritually emptiness of Los Angeles celebrity culture, and both could only exist because of the extraordinary freedoms offered to the filmmakers by embracing low-grade digital video technology. For Knight of Cups, that means Malick and his ever-reliable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki playing around with GoPro cameras, and if that idea doesn't have you fanning yourself like an antebellum Southern lady with the vapors, then you and I simply don't watch movies the same way.

More than it is anything else, Knight of Cups is an experiment in movement and perspective, in taking familiar shapes and places and demanding we notice them as we've never noticed them before because of the shocking new aesthetic context the filmmakers have placed them into. For the first time in his career, Malick dives headlong into urban environments, which is a borderline-revolutionary shift for someone whose films are as invested in observing and seeing into natural landscapes. He and Lubezki still shoot the glass walls and asphalt ground of Los Angeles in the same way they've previously filmed suburban lawns, wheat fields, and forests, and it is one of the most mesmerising things I have ever seen in any movie. The serpentine flexibility and wide-angle lens of the GoPro sequences make the most innocuous settings - underwater in a pool, walking down a beach, a nondescript city street - seem like alien landscapes in which every texture is massively important and the most radical thing you've ever seen. The great majority of the time, I found my eye scanning the frame like a painting, caring infinitely more about the colors, lines, and soft focus of the city at night rather than the people in the foreground; or appreciating the way that human bodies move, bending here but not there, being pulled down by gravity in such a way, with Lubezki's camera hovering as close as a lover. Best of all are the driving scenes: the camera parked on the front of a car as it proceeds down the road, into tunnels, around corners, the lack of a clear frame or physical context to anchor the camera making it feel like we're flying at speeds unknown to man. It's a beautiful exercise in making us notice things we do not: this is the road and this is the way trees rush by and this is how lighting changes as you move from streetlight to streetlight. This is the ideal movie for people whose favorite part of Tarkovsky's Solaris is the highway scene, as I am confident at least one other person besides me in the whole wide world must feel.

My experience - and as subjective as all moviegoing is, surely this is still an exaggerated case - was of nonstop pleasure, just taking in the imagery Malick and Lubezki presented to me, unlike anything they or really anybody else has done in a mainstream feature film (it's a particular triumph for the cinematographer: this is his boldest work in years, right at the same level as Y tu mamΓ‘ tambiΓ©n and Children of Men in terms of pure creativity). Not everybody is going to feel that kind of pleasure, of course. As I've said, Knight of Cups would be far better off if it simply jettisoned the trappings of narrative film altogether, not just because it would be a better movie in its own right, but because it would make things easier on its audience. It is, in truth, monumentally flawed in some extremely unnecessary ways: the entirety of the chapter "Death", starring Natalie Portman, is an embarrassing slog through archaic notions of man/woman relationships, and only Cate Blanchett and Dennehy give interesting, in-depth performances, instead of just acting as Malick's meat puppets (which isn't necessarily a problem! But having one performance as great as Blanchett's makes all the rest seem suspect). If someone told me they hated every minute of it, I would never argue that it wasn't 100% the film's fault. For myself, though, halfway through 2016, no other movie I've seen this year has given me even a trace of the transporting joy that Knight of Cups did, and no other movie is as certain to be a regular part of my film watching in the future.