As if fortysomethings need any further memento mori that they’ll become dust sooner than they think, Natalie Portman joined their ranks earlier this month. Indeed, it has been more than a quarter-century since Portman’s on-screen debut. And what a stunning journey it’s been from ingenue to in-demand — from Jane Foster to Jackie Kennedy, Star Wars to stoner comedies, Malick to Mr. Magorium, precise impersonations of Madonna to piercing interrogations of the Madonna-whore complex, Beautiful Girls to Black Swan. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to feel like Portman’s stardom was never in doubt. But no talent like her should be taken for granted. If you believe her legendary Lonely Island-assisted freestyle, she could even kill your dog for fun, so don’t push her. What you want, Natalie? A career of might. What you need, Natalie? To always find new heights. This is Natalie’s Rap.

A Natalie Portman series for Midwest Film Journal? Sure. How about I take her two Terrence Malick films? After all, I’ve seen every Malick movie — loved some, liked and appreciated the rest (except his IMAX one). And I’ve defended his unique style to mocking fellow film journalists. 

What I didn’t tell my editor is that I couldn’t remember which of the Malick films Portman was in.

That must say something.

About Portman. 

Or Malick. 

Or me.

So I re-watched.

In Knight of Cups, Portman doesn’t show up until 80 minutes into the film, has an extra-marital relationship with a screenwriter (Christian Bale), and isn’t sure by whom she’s now pregnant. 

In a conventional film, this would be an opportunity for volatile, dialogue-packed scenes of dramatic anguish. Part of the experience of the film would be making judgments about her, about the writer, about the husband and about each relationship. Malick, though, doesn’t even introduce us to the husband. 

Signing on as an actor to a Malick film is an unselfish act. You know there’s little chance of a wide audience seeing the film. Awards beyond cinematography are unlikely. There’s a decent possibility that the back of your head will be onscreen more than your face. There’s an even greater chance that very little of what you shot will end up in the finished film. And, at least in my case, there’s a good chance a viewer will remember the feel of the film more than the specifics of plot, character and action.

But re-watching Cups made me appreciate Portman’s work. Her body relates to Bale’s differently from fragmental scene to fragmental scene, and there’s no hint of cinematic dishonesty. We know she’s found something. We know there’s something of which she isn’t sure. We know her anguish when she discovers her pregnancy. 

And after a brief, inexplicably foggy interior moment and a request for forgiveness, she’s gone, having occupied only 15 minutes of screen time as just one in a parade of relationships for the writer.

Portman is also a latecomer in Song to Song, although her character is more central. The film may have been sold as Malick’s mosh-pit dive into the Austin music scene, but it’s actually another exploration into people trying to find something to fill the holes in their lives.

Michael Fassbender (character names are meaningless here so I’ll stick with the actors) is a mover-and-shaker music producer, Rooney Mara is a woman looking for access to power, and Ryan Gosling is a musician new to the scene. 

If you saw them on the street acting like they do in this film, you’d probably think they were assholes. And you’d probably be right. They act like jerks in a Mexican restaurant. They spout self-centered self-indulgences. 

But Malick is being deliberate, which is underlined by Bob Dylan on the soundtrack singing “I got troubles so hard / I just can’t stand the strain” while the trio frolics at a beachside drinkery. It takes brief appearances by Patti Smith, sharing a story of loss and offering sage advice, to remind us what human beings who actually care about each other are like. 

Just over a half-hour in, Portman asks the producer “Everything OK?” It’s not, but her question is telling. She’s a waitress and former kindergarten teacher who quickly caves to his pushy advances. Next stop: Backstage at a concert hanging out with Iggy Pop and in end-zone seats at a University of Texas at Austin football game. Coming from a world of family challenges, she’s awed by this guy who has everything he wants. Who could ask for anything more? There’s even a new house for her mom. 

So they get married. But Cinderella has the nagging knowledge that the prince is an unsatisfiable jerk.  

She disappears for a stretch after the wedding, but then we get a glimpse of a threesome between Fassbinder, Mara and Portman, some experiments with honey and mushrooms, and a moving moment of Portman at church, distanced from the congregation but trying to connect.

Again when we think maybe Malick has written her out of the picture, she’s back, connecting with a philosophical prostitute. Portman is barely given a line in the scene, but she makes clear that she has internalized — and identified — with the woman’s story. It’s a sad, telling moment, expertly handled. 

Soon, Portman’s character is gone and her permanent absence is palpable.

Song to Song is largely about the difference between an album and a series of singles — living song to song versus creating something larger. It’s actually a very conservative film, its values aligning with that of the former waitress in valuing the long-term over momentary pleasures and indulgences. That’s clear in its post-Portman playout, where Malick seems to think we’ve invested more in the relationship between Mara and Gosling. (A final baptism of sorts anticipates Malick’s upcoming film about Jesus.)  

What keeps both Knight of Cups and Song to Song from being top-tier Malick is the privilege of the lead characters, whose struggles are largely internal. We don’t even know if they have any talent to back up their status. The prime residents of both films may feel alienated by the hardcore partying, sexual access and wealth they are privy to, but an average audience member is justified in saying, “You think you’ve got problems?”

Malick’s stronger films — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The New World, The Tree of Life and A Hidden Life — have more common, warts-and-all folks at their core. Their struggles are both internal and external, making empathy easier.

Portman’s roles in Cups and Song are exceptions. While her gifts and talent wouldn’t have fit into any of those stronger Malick canvases, she upgrades these two.