'Knight of Cups'
Remember when Terrence Malick movies were rare, maybe once-a-decade occurrences that felt like special events? Sadly, those days appear to be long gone. ‘Knight of Cups’ is pretty to behold, but it’s just as lost and ramshackle as Malick’s last project, ‘To the Wonder‘.
The great enigma of the 1970s auteur movement now seems to be working at a sprinter’s pace, cranking out cinematic fever dreams so quickly that it’s increasingly difficult to consider them meticulously crafted works where every frame feels worthy of deep analysis. The new era of Malick feels like an art film improviser who sets out with a concept, a Hefty bag full of movie stars, and a genius cinematographer before figuring out what movie he’s actually making in the editing room. It’s nice to know that Terry is having fun and feels excited by filmmaking again, but it’s a shame that he seems to have given up on screenwriting.
Attempting to describe the plot of ‘Knight of Cups’ in anything other than broad terms is a fool’s errand and essentially impossible. Truthfully, there isn’t much of one. It’s essentially a chronicle of Christian Bale wandering through a variety of Hollywood tableaus and encountering a variety of beautiful women. There are title screens marking chapters, but it’s difficult to decipher what they mean. The chapters dedicated to the women circling Bale’s character Rick are either empty dalliances with attractive starlets like Imogen Poots or Teresa Palmer, or they’re scolding sessions, like one from Cate Blanchett as his furious sister or one from Natalie Portman as an ex with a failed pregnancy. In between those passages, Rick stumbles through Hollywood parties or meetings questioning his artistic worth and/or value in the universe. It’s just as listless, episodic and pretentious a movie as it sounds, despite its moments of beauty.
Some sort of creative breakthrough clearly happened for Malick while working on ‘The Tree of Life‘ which changed his approach to filmmaking. That movie was a longtime dream project with a script he’d toiled on for decades. Then somewhere in the middle of shooting, he abandoned his screenplay and started improvising with his actors and his brilliant cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki. Although doing that was always a part of his process, now that he has a cinematographer who can create the woozy dreamlike images that Malick adores on the fly, it seems to have become his entire process. Much like ‘To the Wonder’, ‘Knight of Cups’ feels like a series of loosely defined scenes imagined and constructed on the day, which were then stitched together in the editing room and laced with voiceover that both explains and abstracts the meaning of every moment. The results can be visually hypnotic, but nearly impossible to decode on any level beyond the pure sensual experience.
‘Knight of Cups’ is simultaneously hypnotic and frustrating. At times, it’s impossible to figure out why any scene is happening, and at times you wish the voiceover would shut up and stop over-explaining everything. More than anything else, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the days when Malick’s movies had more cohesive narrative and thematic purposes to impart on the audience beyond the pretty images and grad school philosophizing. Even ‘Tree of Life’ had its BIG life questions at the center to use as a guidepost. Beyond fairly obvious observations about the emptiness of Hollywood, it’s hard to tell exactly what Malick is getting at with this one, unless he’s trying to explore everything at once.
The actors struggle too. Rarely do the words they speak actually come out of their mouths rather than in disorienting voiceover. They all seem to be having fun, but are clearly making everything up as they go along and are visibly confused at times (even Blanchett, who previously seemed incapable of delivering a performance that she wasn’t in complete control of).
Despite all that, the movie is beautiful for long passages in a way that can feel absolutely intoxicating. Malick’s talent and unique vision certainly haven’t disappeared. His focus has just gotten a little wonky. However, that could just be the result of the subject matter of these past two movies, which are clearly quite personal. After all, the two things that everyone knows for sure about the enigma are that he likes to wander around in search of meaning and that he has a troubled relationship with Hollywood. That explains the last two movies and probably why he felt he could both wing them and invest them with such a density of philosophical musings that only he can decipher. Hopefully this is just a phase. If this is indeed how all Terrence Malick movies will play from now on, these oddball beauties may be necessary growing pains to get to the next masterpiece. If not, Malick risks becoming a parody of himself, if he hasn’t gotten there already.