You’re more likely to have tuned into the recent Academy Awards than to have heard of Knight of Cups, the new film from reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick. But if you did watch this year’s telecast, the name Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki should ring a bell, since the brilliant cinematographer just took home an unprecedented third consecutive Oscar for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Unsurprisingly, Chivo’s peerless eye for capturing natural beauty is reinforced in Malick’s latest film. Unfortunately, gorgeous cinematography is pretty much all you’ll get out of this experimental misfire, which finds the director sealing his divorce from audience-friendly filmmaking while squandering the talents of the lost-looking Hollywood A-listers (and a few notable D-listers—Fabio, anyone?) who clamor to work with him.
And why wouldn’t they? Malick burst onto the scene in 1973 with his masterful Badlands, which he followed up with 1978’s transportive Days of Heaven. Then he quietly disappeared for 20 years. When he re-emerged with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, it was cause for celebration. And while this artful adaptation of James Jones’ semi-autobiographical, World War II-set novel didn’t capture quite the same magic as Malick’s previous pictures, you could forgive the reclusive artist for growing rusty after sitting out two decades as his reputation ossified. Many did, including members of the Academy, who showered the Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar’s ruminative war movie with seven Oscar nominations. Mind you, it didn’t win a single award, but Malick was back.
Is he ever. It took him another seven years to release 2005’s The New World, his polarizing look at the life and loves of Pocahontas (and the first of Malick’s features to be photographed by Chivo, who—surprise!—landed the film’s sole Oscar nod), but he’s produced three films in just the past five years, and another two are on the way. The 72-year-old hasn’t granted an interview since the mid-’70s, but I can only imagine Malick is making up for lost time.
Perhaps another break is in order. The lyrical poetry of his earliest films has seeded cliches that began taking root in 2011’s soulful The Tree of Life, deepened in his last picture, 2012’s greatly flawed To the Wonder, and have now grown into full-blown formula. For instance, in To the Wonder, Ben Affleck’s protagonist was torn between the two women in his life (played by Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams). Knight of Cups’ male lead, a Hollywood dweller played by Christian Bale, drifts between no fewer than six beauties (Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer and Isabel Lucas). None of these conquests are ever in danger of becoming flesh-and-blood creations, unlike Kurylenko’s character, who projected meaningful emotion despite Malick’s best efforts to bury her under turgid narration.
That’s here again in spades: Malick uses minimal dialogue, turning instead to voiceover to obliquely fill in the gaps left by his fractured narrative. Lacking the benefit of a traditional tale’s conversations, the film takes about 20 minutes to reveal that Bale’s character is named Rick—and even longer to hint at his profession. Initially, I’d pegged him as Malick’s surrogate, a director. Helpfully, the press notes supplied by a publicist explicitly identify him as a screenwriter, far better than the film’s episodic, free-roaming montages do. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced even Bale could tell you who or what he was playing.
You’ll likely be just as confused by the film’s title, which takes its name from the tarot card depicting a romantic adventurer—a knight in shining armor—guided by his emotions. But few if any emotions register on Bale’s stoic face as Rick sleepwalks from one woman to the next, including his physician ex-wife (Blanchett), a model (Pinto) and a stripper (Palmer).
While offering decadent depictions of Rick’s Fellini-lite adventures during parties on hilltop estates or sojourns to the Vegas strip, Malick layers on spoken passages from the 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. We get even more voiceover courtesy of Rick’s grief-stricken father (Brian Dennehy, red-faced and hand-wringing), who whispers lines like “My son, you’re just like me…a pilgrim on this earth, a stranger…where did I go wrong?” as Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite accompanies him. Oh, the humanity.
During another typically meandering moment, an earthquake rattles Rick from his apartment, but in the aftermath, everything remains as before. His pilgrim is still a cipher, a knight whose cups are neither half-empty nor half-full—just beautifully photographed, by one of the best. It’s a shame nothing beyond pretty pictures could shake out.
Knight of Cups *1/2
Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, Antonio Banderas, Cherry Jones, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Clifton Collins Jr., Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Nick Kroll, Fabio and Ben Kingsley. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. At Kendall Square.