Not too long ago the release of a new Terrance Malick film was a rare and special thing. Even if you ignore his famous twenty year hiatus between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line it remained the case that you were likely to wait at least five years in-between each one of his efforts. But it seems something has changed because just two years after his much beloved The Tree of Life he managed to release a brand new movie called To the Wonder in (by his standards) record time and now just a few years after that he’s come out with another new movie called Knight of Cups. The big question of course is whether or not these long stretches in-between movies were in fact necessary to Malick’s creative process or whether they were simply unfortunate droughts worth filling in with new product. To many To the Wonder suggested that this sped up schedule was not doing him any favors, but I was not among them. I wouldn’t say that was his best film, in fact it was probably his weakest up to that point, but I did quite like it and thought it was a worthy companion piece to The Tree of Life. Unfortunately I’m not so sure I can say the same about this latest movie in his newly expedited slate of films, in fact I’m not really sure what to make of it at all.
The film is set in present day Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, and focuses on a man named Rick (Christian Bale) who I had assumed was a movie star but who the various online plot descriptors say is actually a screenwriter. Yeah, that’s the level of non-narrative abstraction we’re dealing with in this time around. The film is divided into eight segments, each one roughly dealing with his brief interactions with a handful of other people, many of them having had some sort of relation to him in his past. We meet his brother (Wes Bentley), his father (Brian Dennehy), his current friend/lover (Imogen Poots), his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), another ex-flame (Natalie Portman), and various other Los Angeles denizens like a decadent millionaire (Antonio Banderas).
Malick’s career can pretty easily be put into two stages. The first stage goes from his debut film Badlands goes through his first four films and reaches its crescendo with The New World. These films basically take a concept that easily could be turned into a standard Hollywood project (a serial killer and his lover on the run, the battle of Guadalcanal, the Pocahontas story, etc.) and then tackle it using his signature ethereal style in order to make it feel wholly different than it would have. Then with 2011’s The Tree of Life he kind of reinvented himself in terms of content if not style. Rather than focusing on a story with a high concept of sorts, that movie brought the Malick touch to a very down to earth story about a boy’s coming of age in the 1950s and this trend continued into 2013’s To the Wonder which was primarily about a rocky relationship between a man and a woman. At the end of the day both movies were about very common situations that everyone can relate to on some level. Knight of Cups, by contrast, is trying to do much the same thing but instead of focusing on relatively universal situations it is focusing on what it’s like to be a wealthy show business figure surrounded by obscene wealth and beautiful women at all times and that is… not something everyone gets a chance to experience. This is of course where I think we start to run into problems. When those other movies skipped over the conventional exposition and explanation that most movies would give you audiences were still able to follow along to some extent because the situations were so familiar. Here not so much.
To make matters worse Malick has, if anything, increased the level of abstraction here to the point of it bordering on incoherence. There isn’t really a story here as such. If anything it seems to be designed as a character study of the Christian Bale character but the movie is so dearth of conventional dialogue that we barely get to know him at all. I think the idea is to give us an idea of what he’s like based on his relationship to all the other characters, but his interactions with them are so brief and impressionistic that we only get the vaguest idea of who they are and what his past is with them. We get that there’s some sort of strife between his family members, that his marriage to the Cate Blanchett character didn’t work out, that he somehow wronged the Natalie Portman character, but I don’t think there’s enough there to really hang a movie on. The signature Malick voice-overs aren’t much of a help either as they are even less on point than usual and often take the form of literal poems rather than concrete ideas and the chronology of the whole film is also all over the place.
Malick is, as usual, a visual stylist worth taking note of and his imagery often remains quite beautiful although it never quite had the same bite here as it did in his last couple of films. Emmanuel Lubezki returns as his cinematographer and while his and Malick’s eye for beautiful framings a and seemingly weightless camera movements remain just as impactful as ever the raw cinematography here felt a little more digital and bland than it has in the past. At times some of the imagery felt a little more indulgent than it has in the past as well, as if Malick came up with a laundry list of interesting shots he wanted to get and then made sure they all ended up in the movie one way or another. On an intellectual level I kind of get what he’s doing. Malick has spent much of his career bringing out the beauty in nature through his camera work, but throughout his career he has shown a similar level of awe towards man-made creations whether its his treatment of 17th Century England in the last act of The New World or his admiration of Urban Texas during the Sean Penn portions of The Tree of Life. This is in many ways a film that’s trying to focus more in on his perspective of modern urban life in both its beauty and occasional ugliness and in this way it is a valuable inclusion into his larger body of work… I just wish he had found a better way to do it.
The film takes its title from a tarot card called “The Knight of Cups” and there are various title cards along the way that assign other tarot cards to various characters. Wikipedia tells me that according to standard tarot divination the Knight of Cups represents “a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.” That sounds like an interesting person, and if I look back at the film I suppose I could apply those attributes to its central character if I wanted to, but I kind of wish the film itself had made those character traits known to me in the actual text rather than some riddle that I have to look up by googling the film’s title. I’m a pretty hardcore Malick defender, the kind of person who loved To the Wonder and think The New World is somewhere in the director’s top three but with Knight of Cups he’s finally found a level of abstraction and general aimlessness that I can’t even get behind and defend. There are hints of a solid Malick film that seem to be hidden beneath some of the obliqueness of the whole thing that I wish could break free, but at the same time I almost kind of wonder if Malick should have given up any pretense of storytelling and just gone full-on Koyaanisqatsi with this thing. Either way, I can’t say that I got out of it what I wanted and I’m hoping that Malick maybe slows down a bit before he tries to push this style even further into depths of the unintelligibility.