Intensely visual poetry, gone to the absolute extreme. And that isn’t always the best thing. Terrence Malick’s new film often feels too pretentious for us to even want to decipher, so pretentious that halfway through we are looking for something to actually happen, waiting for Christian Bale to break the fourth wall, stare us in the eyes with a “Gotcha!” look and start the actual movie. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen, and we’re left with a grab bag of experimental, tarot card inspired vignettes that don’t do much successfully in the way of easing our frustration and boredom. This is a film sure to divide viewers, critics, and even the most possessed Terrence Malick fans. While Knight of Cups falls short of, and extremely at that, narrative focus, rarely taking the time to make a point of what we’re seeing on the screen, it can in be taken (if only at face value) as quite a gorgeous film of illusion, disillusion, consumption, and decay.
Malick’s Knight of Cups tells the story of a bizarre, spacey Hollywood screenwriter (played by Christian Bale) who attempts to make sense of his ever collapsing life and the strange circumstances of life in the elite class of Los Angeles. With the loss of a brother, the decay of another brother (Wes Bentley), and the mental ruination of his father (Brian Dennehy) looming above him, Bale’s character attempts to find answers and solace in the excess of Hollywood that has propelled him to this point in his life: Drugs, money, and women.
Unfortunately too sparse and underused are actresses Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and the lovely Cate Blanchett. While the literal story itself can’t garner much praise, these performances are what give us a flickering light of feeling in our hearts and minds.
It’s painful to feel such emotions only for a split second, when Malick could have taken us further into the souls of the characters, making their would be powerful, but so unfortunately intangible crises’ something that we can work with. The fever dream of materialism and a trivial search for purpose in sexuality are just too shallow to break through the already dense shield Malick has placed over his film. There is no doubt that Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett could have saved this movie if they were allowed a shred of deeper self-discovery and unobstructed performance, if the narrative (or lack thereof) could’ve been opened even an inch to allow them to fill with substance the moments where we are longing for explanation and guidance. It’s a shame they were not utilized to their full performance potential.
The saving grace of Knight of Cups comes in the form of Emmanuel Lubezki’s magnificent, dream like cinematography, which others in his field should be taking notes from. If Knight of Cups can be given anything, it’s that this is how a movie should look; this is how landscapes should manifest themselves on the screen. The beautiful, artistic dosser that we are shrouded in is enough to make this film interesting and worth a shot to more cultivated viewers, but if you’re looking for something more substantial than fragments of a dejected man, and one who we can’t seem to empathize with, this is going to paint a confusing, albeit beautiful, picture in your head.
Boxer Lieberman is a freelance film critic and essayist based out of New Brunswick, New Jersey.