Terrence Malick, who seems to be diving ever deeper into an existential abyss, makes To The Wonder look like a stylistic warm-up in his newest… film? Maybe “experience” is a better term?
Some of you may be rolling your eyes at the thought of another masturbatory art exhibit from the director, while others might feel a sense of provocative excitement. That’s the divisive reality of Malick’s most recent works, and Knight Of Cups might be his most polarizing vision yet. From the very first landscaping camera twirl, the film leads audiences into a circling vortex of pain and remorse, where life’s very essence is dissected ad nauseam – if never truly exposed. Malick is all about posing unanswerable questions, which becomes a frustrating practice as tarot cards connect feeble, emotionless non sequiturs. I’d say Terrence goes full Malick this time around, but that can’t be stated for certain.
Christian Bale stars as Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter who uses relationships to find meaning in his own life. As he stumbles through neon-laced Las Vegas clubs and drug-pumped Los Angeles parties, Rick ponders about bigger themes and searing interactions. His angry brother (Wes Bentley), a regretful father (Brian Dennehy), and other equally disenchanted travelers all inhabit his thoughts. These characters glide through Rick’s life, but his own cranium is continually spinning with a host of questions that never seem to find answers. Rick searches for something deeper, but only finds himself consumed by an unshakable emptiness. Will Rick discover salvation before he’s swallowed whole?
Described by its divination usage, the Knight Of Cups represents change and new excitements, particularly in romance – or, if turned upside down, unreliability and recklessness. Bale’s character lives this existence, constantly seeking fulfillment, as Malick’s lens lingers almost solely on him. There’s a reason why Joe Manganiello only has one line, or why Nick Offerman’s buffoonery occurs out of focus, or why only Dane DeHaan’s voice can be heard. Rick is asking all the questions, to himself, and going absolutely nowhere. For two, exhausting hours, Bale broods like no Twilight hunk has brooded before, wandering aimlessly as the camera ignores any and all outside distractions. For lack of better terminology, we’re stuck in Rick’s glass case of emotion, desperately seeking a way out.
Six women act as Rick’s muses, guiding him through various stages of cloudy indifference. Each relationship opens with similar, lustful gazes, which all vanish without warning. The likes of Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Teresa Palmer present more tangible characters, each representing different fears in Rick. Be it Portman, and her already-married crisis, or Blanchett, who Rick coldly abandons, Malick continually harps on love’s tendency to fade. Bleak, right? There are bouts of brighter meadows, when Palmer leads Rick through Vegas’ wild, vibrant nightclub scene, but enjoyment is merely momentary, as the narrative is soon dragged back into the murky, neutral waters of life’s blank monotony. Over, and over, and over again, Rick’s rotating cast of lovers tease happiness, but always pull away. This is a movie about not being okay. Ever.
Each of Malick’s actions are calculated, despite how unwieldy his whooshing camera antics become. Rick never stops moving, personifying a circular, cyclical version of reality. He never looks others in the eye, facing away from people deep in conversation. Rick is always elsewhere (much like Malick’s attention to detail).
B-roll of babies and highways are intercut with Rick’s meandering and further blurred by exploitative art installations, like a masked woman who smears black paint on her face in silence. Scenery either explodes with life, much like Antonio Banderas’ fever-dream shindig, or remains deathly uninvolved, like an empty backlot where Rick’s agents discuss a life-changing opportunity. But, this is Malick without any semblance of restraint, reaching a “Malickian” state of existence that could be interpreted as egotistically off-putting or soulfully hypnotizing. Your pick – so long as you can endure his aggressive agenda against men’s swimwear.
The main issue with this film is that Malick has a lot to say but no methodology. Knight Of Cups builds upon frustration, and loss, and many other depressing thoughts that plague our own minds, but it never offers any relief from such punishing subjects. Bigger revelations simply aren’t uncovered, as Malick addresses social fatigue without any narrative explanation.
Banderas’ womanizing antics basely equate females to tasty flavors, in comparisons that other stereotypical Hollywood characters have thoughtlessly uttered before. Dennehy’s ramblings about a life spent grinding do resonate with blue-collar regrets of a constantly working class, but again, in Malick’s representation, we’re just given the overlooked rantings of an old man. This undercooked mentality discredits whatever raw, human fears Malick is able to evoke. Knight of Cups, in the end, lifelessly embodies an extreme, far-reaching case of dizzying style over substance.
Alas, it would be improper to discredit Malick’s efforts as a proud cinematic voice. This is not pretension. This is exploration. Do you think Hawaiian pizza was crafted through conformity? No! Some mad bastard threw juicy chunks of pineapple and savory ham on a pizza, thus birthing a unique, unexpected delicacy (buzz off, it’s delicious). If we do not experiment, we’ll never stumble upon the most unexpected of delights. Malick should not, and apparently will not, be stopped, which, despite these current circumstances, is for the better.
Knight Of Cups may not be his “Hawaiian pizza” (it’s more an underbaked, doughy crust topped with soggy sauce, piles of stiff cheese, a mountain of raw toppings, and an uneven distribution of flavor), but hopefully that – something that connects this film’s vision with stronger coherency – will be what comes out of Malick’s oven next.
Some will see Malick's latest as a cup half full, while others, undoubtedly, will perceive the cup to be half empty. As with many of the director's experiences, there is no middle ground.