Another listless collection of cosmic confessionals from Malick. Enough's enough.
Knight of Cups
In his latest movie, Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick asks us to join him, for the third time in a row, on a journey through the meandering thoughts of people lost in life, confessing their innermost moral quandaries to the cosmos as they stumble and crawl across god’s green earth and bask in heavenly sunlight. This time, the setting is Los Angeles, photographed in all its concrete, Art-Deco grandeur by trusted Malick collaborator (and Oscar darling) Emmanuel Lubezki. We follow and listen in on the thoughts of fading movie star Rick (Christian Bale) and, occasionally, his famous friends, as Malick lays out another unbearably thin narrative that’s as deviously frustrating as a 500-piece puzzle with 450 pieces missing. The eminently respected auteur clearly has a firm grip on the art of filmmaking—at his best, he’s one of the greats—but with his work becoming increasingly nebulous and less inviting to audiences, it’s come to the point where patience for his vagaries grows dangerously thin.
In an almost wordless onscreen performance (we hear his voice, but mostly in the form of narration), Bale drifts down the streets of L.A., occasionally jumping in thought to memories from Las Vegas, Century City and Santa Monica. Rick is in a perpetual state of punch-drunk spiritual crisis, surrounded by gorgeous women who glom onto his status, wealth and handsome looks until his emotional ineptness becomes too much to bear, at which point they make way for the next batch of girls to grab at his pants.
Rick’s fleeting romantic partners are played by a dizzying crowd of famous faces: Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas and more can now add a Malick film to their resume. The roles are thin—Blanchett plays his ex-wife, Portman plays a fling—but isn’t every role thin in a Malick movie these days? Antonio Banderas makes an appearance a Hollywood playboy who throws a swanky house party littered with real-life celebrities playing themselves (“Look! It’s Joe Manganiello! Nick Kroll! Danny Strong! Wait…Danny Strong? Huh?”). Banderas takes over narration duties for a bit, spouting twisted, misogynist philosophy. “Women are like flavors,” he says in his sumptuous Spanish accent. “Sometimes you want raspberry, but then you get tired of it and you want strawberry.”
Malick does a good job of laying out the monstrous, indulgent allure of showbiz that pulled Rick in and broke him down into the wandering, pulp of a man he is. He’s become a phony, just like all the other soul-sapped leeches overpopulating the trashy town that bred them (to be clear, Angelenos, I mean Tinseltown, or the idea of it, not L.A.). Similarly swallowed by the city is Rick’s brother (Wes Bently), a non-famous drifter whose short temper is inherited from his and Rick’s late father. The particulars of the family drama (and, in fact, most of the particulars of Ricks life) are left for us to imagine on our own, but the quality of Bale and Bentley’s performances helps to form some semblance of an emotional arc.
Some (this writer included) would consider it a duty of a true movie lover to meet the filmmaker halfway when a film’s concepts or ideas are challenging or obscure. But with Malick’s recent work, it feels like he’s not meeting us halfway. We can only give so much of ourselves over to him before his movies start to feel like tedious chores. What’s so tragic about this is that, on a cinematic level, he’s phenomenal: he and Lubezki’s imagery is sweeping, evocative and immaculately conceived. Some moments—like a ground-level shot of Bale taking a knee on the concrete as an earthquake shakes the buildings and people around him—are so exquisite you could cry. But without a deeper sense of cohesion, these cinematic feats start to feel hollow as they pile on top of each other for two hours straight. As with Malick’s last movie, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups topples over, leaving us to sift through a mess of pretty pictures in a desperate search of some morsel of meaning. Like his characters, maybe it’s time for us to wake the hell up.