“Knight of Cups”: Christian Bale plays a wandering filmmaker in Terrence Malick’s new film, which is full of exquisite imagery but doesn’t ever come together. 2.5 stars out of 4.

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Terrence Malick’s best movies don’t unfold — they float, they shimmer, they waft, settling around the audience like a soft, indistinct fragrance. His “The Tree of Life,” five years ago, was a triumph of delicate visual poetry; it haunted you, in the same way that a strain of beautiful music might move you deeply, even if you couldn’t quite explain why.

“Knight of Cups,” shot by that great artist of light Emmanuel Lubezki (director of photography for Malick’s last three films, and a three-in-a-row Oscar winner for “Gravity,” “Birdman” and “The Revenant”), follows the Malick tradition: It’s not about plot and character, but about mood. But here, it seems as if the filmmaker has almost out-Malicked himself. I didn’t care that “The Tree of Life” was sometimes incomprehensible, because watching it brought such joy; here, the visual beauty never quite makes up for a story so muddy that you can’t see through it — it blocks our view of the light.

At the center of “Knight of Cups” (the title refers to a tarot card character, a romantic adventurer) is Rick (Christian Bale), a Los Angeles screenwriter who is … well, I’m not quite sure what he is, other than moody and troubled. For two hours, we follow Rick as he drives aimlessly around L.A. (and later visits Las Vegas), seduces and/or has soulful conversations with an assortment of dazzlingly beautiful women and sees his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). We learn that the family is still grieving for a third brother, who died some time ago, and that Rick was once married to a doctor (Cate Blanchett).

Movie Review ★★½  

‘Knight of Cups,’ with Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. 118 minutes. Rated R for some nudity, sexuality and language. Several theaters.

And yes, every moment looks exquisite. That L.A. light seems made of magic, the air so impossibly clear it amplifies the faces. We watch mist rolling down a hillside, like gently cascading sands; we see waves crashing in blue-silver frenzy; we attend a party held at an ethereal mansion that looks like it’s frosted with buttercream icing; and we even revisit “Tree of Life” territory, in sun-dappled shots of a young family playing on an impossibly yellow-green suburban lawn. Some of the images are alarming (a dog, catching a tennis ball underwater, slowly and terrifyingly bares its fangs) and some are whimsical, like a young woman in a flowing white dress who simply rides through a shot on a large tricycle.

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Though little happens, “Knight of Cups” isn’t exactly dull — there’s something worth studying in every frame, like Blanchett’s face in her brief scenes (an angular study in heartbreak), or a loose-knit sweater worn by Natalie Portman’s character that brings to mind a mermaid caught in a net. And there’s something agreeably dreamlike about the whole thing: Rick, who’s in the business of sculpting dreams, wanders barefoot, as one does in sleep. But you keep waiting for the film to come together, for Rick to emerge as a character rather than a cipher, for the women to seem less interchangeable — in short, for a point to it all. By its end, I was still waiting.