Before I begin my review, I have to get something off of my chest that may upset a lot of cinephiles out there. I don’t think I can really consider myself a Terrence Malick fan. I loved Badlands and Days of Heaven, very deserving of the Criterion Collection spots they hold. His return to film twenty years later, The Thin Red Line, is an absolute master but that was the last time the reclusive auteur made anything that full connected with me. The New World was a total chore to get through and Tree of Life, although totally gorgeous, felt so self indulgent in it’s vast majority that I left the film drained and tired and wary of anything the director had coming next. Maybe I should have braced myself more because his most self indulgent project was still to come.
A mumbling two hour haiku of a film, Knight of Cups is probably the most self indulgent film I have ever seen. It is a middle finger to all of Hollywood and the city of Los Angeles itself, although it employs everything Malick seems to hate against a beautifully shot backdrop of a city that it seems the director would love to see crushed by a tidal wave, something our main character actually muses about in the film. Hypocritical? I kind of thought so but, like all of his films before, Knight of Cups is just another piece of Terrence Malick’s journey from birth to death, spinning around on this blue marble we call Earth.
So, what is Knight of Cups about and can I actually summarize a cohesive outline of a plot? Well, here it goes. The film centres around Rick (Christian Bale), a massively successful and sought after Hollywood screenwriter who is in an existential crisis in every way. He finds his work unfulfilling and the glitzy parties and lifestyle around him pretty vapid and intolerable. His family life is a mess with an ex wife (Cate Blanchett) who he’s driven to detest him and he’s still visibly shaken by the suicide of his brother, something he shares with his former junkie brother Barry (Wes Bentley). This also estranges them from their father (Brian Dennehy), who they blame and ultimately shun for this death which hangs like a black cloud over all their conversations. While Barry seems to feel destructive about everything, Rick is just lost.
Bale sleepwalks through this film, fleetingly falling in love with multiple women along the way and making connections with different strange individuals before circumstance, apathy or a complete devoid of feeling end up pulling him away into his own introspective philosophical moments. The movie is divided into eight different chapters in Rick’s float through existence, each pertaining to a different tarot card, starting with The Moon, which represents as a rebellious young actress played by the gorgeous Imogen Poots. Each of these chapter moves him through to possibly a feeling of understanding and enlightenment, something that was lost on me by the time the credits hit.
For all the beauty that appears in each methodical shot by Terrence Malick, this film left me cold without a clear defining thread of a story to follow. I know Malick fans are sharpening their pitchforks at me with malice in their hearts but there was zero latch point for me in this and even all the actors seem, at times, lost and confused to what is expected of them. The dialogue is all completely metaphorical and, for me, there was a complete lack of any sort of humanity in this film. I also really felt like Rick was a completely privileged asshole, living a life in the lap of luxury that he hates but without a single clue to anything that he loves, except for these women and for only a moment at a time. This all leads to my central problem, there’s no one and nothing to even care about. I became Rick while watching this.
As for Malick’s execution of the film itself, in vision, the man really knows what he’s doing even if the cast, crew and audience doesn’t. Because this film is so much of a self expression for himself, he doesn’t kowtow to anything he doesn’t want to. Malick was entirely in the know while no one else was. Every thing was improvised and it’s evident from the final film that hours and hours of footage was shot for Malick to cut together into his mad scientist vision. This includes a lot of Go Pro shots that appeared to me as garish and ugly against the beautiful Emmanuel Lubezki shot cinematography. These shots were jarring for me and brought me out of the shallow pool in which I was engaged.
Let’s be entirely truthful about Knight of Cups when it comes to your average movie goer slapping his money down to see the latest Christian Bale film. Without a doubt, they will hate it. Now, this isn’t to say I hated it but I just didn’t feel anything for it. I can not praise a film for how stunning it looks if there’s nothing behind it for me. Terrence Malick fans are going to absolutely love how close the filmmaker gets with his own industry, celebrating it but damning it entirely at the same time. To me the dazzling heights of seeing the gorgeous vistas of Los Angeles splayed across the screen wasn’t enough to drive me through all of Bale’s reflective and dour voiceovers. Knight of Cups wasn’t for me at all and had absolutely nothing for me to pull for myself and I give it a one out of five.