KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016, directed by Terrence Malick, 118 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It took a lot of mental thrashing to come to this conclusion but weeks after screening Terrence Malick’s latest magnum opus Knight of Cups, I feel comfortable saying that it is a major Terrence Malick film. What else is there to compare it to? Who else in Hollywood can drum up such a plush budget and major box-office stars to make a plotless, nearly dialogue-free rumination on the big meanings of life? And who else could make it something you’d want to watch?
The film centers around Christian Bale as Rick, a successful Hollywood screenwriter reflecting on his discontents in life. It’s all framed by the voice of Ben Kingsley, telling a fable about a Prince who forgets his identity. Can the woeful Rick get his love for life back? His quest is marked by titles taken from Tarot cards, (“The Hanged Man,” “The High Priestess”) a move that in itself is part mystery/part carny trick.
Knight of Cups finds Malick straying further than ever from traditional narrative and, in the process, reveals his shortcomings like none of his previous films. While the musings on existence felt organic in Tree of Life‘s recreation of childhood, Knight of Cups‘ screenplay is shockingly thin on real profundities, particularly considering Malick graduated summa cum laude with a Harvard philosophy degree. Instead we glide through the highways of L.A. with Rick’s heavy thoughts on the soundtrack, “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know” and “See the palm trees? They tell you anything’s possible.” By setting so many of his films in the past, Malick may have helped cover up the fact that he can be a bit clunky in capturing the patter of modern day conversation.
Knight of Cups also shows Malick leaning so heavily on favorite motifs as to reveal them as lazy cliches. We observe the slo-mo dance on magic hour beaches, the wildlife captured scurrying in the underbrush and adults reverting unselfconsciously into playful children. All are paraded in front of the camera with the efficiency of a rubber stamp striking the celluloid with the message, “A Terrence Malick Film.”
Malick wants to drag us into the Bacchanalia of Rick’s sordid, mildly-troubled life but with the same puritanical instinct that kept Kit and Holly’s coupling off-screen in Badlands, Malick can’t bring himself to enjoy the prurient parts of Rick’s life. He just can’t see the naked models jumping up and down on Rick’s Vegas hotel bed as anything but a cry for help. Oh well. We might assume Malick had a taste of this life when he was an up-and-coming Hollywood screenwriter in the early 70s, and Knight of Cups wants to say that he’s awfully sorry.
Yet once I accepted that Rick ‘s story wasn’t going to reach me emotionally I found myself settling back to enjoy Malick’s visual sketchbook of the numinous landscapes of Las Vegas and L.A. Shot by the transcendent cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (currently an Oscar-winner three years running for shooting Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant), the film mixes its cliches with jaw-dropping visual sequences that pop up out of nowhere and but just as quickly evaporate. A string of the most beautiful and captivating young actresses of our time are treated as eye-candy but if you have to rest your weary pupils on something for two hours, why shouldn’t it be Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, and Imogen Poots? None of them can make Rick happy, which just further abstracts the character, but it is a delight to see each of them in their little montage of early relationship infatuation.
The film’s dramatically hazy quality invites very personal reactions but its attempt at closing catharsis couldn’t quite crack my brittle cynicism the way The Tree of Life did. Yet deposited on the post-screening sidewalk, the residue of all of Christian Bale’s needless moping was washed away by the potent IMAX-style grandeur of the film’s visual splendor. Knight of Cups might not work like a great Terrence Malick film does but it is still gloriously the work of the great Terrence Malick.