In 2012, during a Newsweek actors’ roundtable, Christopher Plummer famously vowed he’d never work again with Terrence Malick, his director on the 2005 film The New World. “The problem with Terry, which I soon found out, is that he needs a writer desperately,” Plummer complained. “He insists on doing everything, as we all know, and he insists on writing and overwriting and overwriting until it sounds terribly pretentious. … Terry gets terribly involved in sort of poetic shots, which are gorgeous, but they’re paintings, all of them. He gets lost in that, and the stories get diffused.”
This wasn’t the first time Malick’s critics have expressed their dislike for the filmmaker’s contemplative, sensory dramas, but it certainly was among the most public. Those sympathetic to Plummer’s objections won’t change their mind after seeing Knight of Cups. Since 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was an apex for the kind of plot-light reveries Malick has made this century, the writer-director has gone further down the tone-poem rabbit hole, creating movies that can often be overwhelmingly, ecstatically emotional. In The New World, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder, you feel what’s happening to the characters far more easily than you understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. To correct Plummer slightly, Malick’s recent films are paintings that move, their swirl of ethereal images stirring visceral responses with an unexpected force that’s unlike anybody else working today.
But even visionaries get into ruts. As gorgeous as Knight of Cups is, his latest can feel a bit like a copy of a copy of a once-innovative style. He still conjures up a spell like no other, but that spell is starting to resemble similar spells he’s previously weaved.
This isn’t to say that Malick’s recent films don’t have stories—merely that they serve as only a starting point from which he can launch into his musings about faith, love, and family. That’s no less true with Knight of Cups, in which Christian Bale plays Rick, a withdrawn Hollywood screenwriter confronting an 8 1/2-esque existential professional/personal crisis. He and his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) still have not regained equilibrium since the death of their other brother, and their relationship with their hulking father (Brian Dennehy) is badly strained. In between the occasional meeting with his agents or hobnobbing at glamorous Malibu parties, Rick runs through a series of fleeting romantic relationships, whether with a married woman (Natalie Portman), a model (Freida Pinto), or a stripper (Teresa Palmer).
But the people and situations surrounding Rick are mostly distractions from, and symptoms of, a deeper, more ineffable melancholy. Which is what exactly? Malick prefers atmosphere to answers. If The Tree of Life was a grand grapple with familial bonds and To the Wonder a grand study of doomed love—Malick only works in grand terms—then Knight of Cups is a grand treatise on the difficulty of reconciling Hollywood’s glitz and superficial hedonism with inner discontent.
This is, to be sure, not a breathtakingly original thesis for a film. (Everything from 8 1/2 to last year’s Youth have examined the angst of artists.) But Malick’s entry in the genre finds its own niche by doubling-down on the almost alien beauty he and longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have wrung from mundane modern structures like skyscrapers (The Tree of Life) and Sonic drive-ins (To the Wonder). In Knight of Cups, Los Angeles, where most of the movie is set, is always awash in a mixture of strangeness and allure. And because Malick and Lubezki use natural light as much as possible—as well as incorporating their trademark floating camerawork—the effect feels natural but also otherworldly, creating an impression that L.A. is less a place than a metaphor, a La-La Land of extravagant, almost unhealthy amounts of wealth and celebrity.
That push/pull of the seductive and the bizarre resonates throughout the movie, and it’s easily Knight of Cups’ strongest element, leaving the audience as disoriented as Rick as he stumbles through another day of ennui. Within that framework, though, Malick introduces narrative elements that are familiar from his recent films. Dennehy’s brawling patriarch isn’t far removed from Brad Pitt’s stoic 1950s father from The Tree of Life, the unhappy love affairs are reminiscent of To the Wonder, while the film’s questioning of a divine being recalls both previous movies. And, of course, there are voluminous amounts of voiceover in Knight of Cups: Some is achingly poignant; other times, its humorless whinge approaches self-parody.
After The New World, Malick seems to have consciously gone in a new direction, whether focusing on Steadicam shots (which give the images a sense of being from the perspective of an omniscient figure) or contemplating the nature of faith in largely contemporary stories. Before The New World, the filmmaker set his dramas in the past, which made them feel like fables or folktales. But as Knight of Cups demonstrates, even when Malick’s working in the present, he’s not entirely present, filming the messy vitality of modern life with a dreamlike, almost judgmental remove. The more that Rick struggles for meaning, the more Malick’s floating compositions suggest the absence of anything of lasting value in his protagonist’s world. Lubezki’s god’s-eye camera with its slightly fisheye lens maroons Rick in a moral vacuum in which there are stunning beaches, fabulous women, and majestic palm trees everywhere, but nothing substantial underneath.
Drawing on somber classical music from the likes of Wojciech Kilar and Arvo Pärt, Knight of Cups never goes completely into “humanity is going to hell in a hand basket” mode, but there’s a clear sense throughout that Malick laments the metaphorical deal with the devil his character has made to become a success in Hollywood. But he’s after more than a simple finger-wag at the entertainment industry’s Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like worship of transient pleasures. Divided into chapters, each bearing the name of a tarot card, the film wants to construct the enigmatic Rick entirely through the interactions he has with others. It’s a daring gambit: Malick arguing not only that our relationships define us but that a man as soul-sick as Rick is seeking wholeness by grafting onto the personalities of those around him.
That strategy is ambitious; the execution, only so-so. Most of these supporting players are broadly drawn, perhaps in an effort to exaggerate their core qualities (or, at least, Rick’s impressions of them). But capable actresses such as Cate Blanchett (playing Rick’s mournful ex-wife) and Imogen Poots (portraying one of his flirty flings) don’t get enough screen time to make an impact. They’re mostly a conveyor built of bewitching, disposable female forms. If done well, that narrow-minded approach could work—Malick illustrating how Rick rifles through different personality types in a vain attempt at a permanent connection—but the result ends up dehumanizing each lover, leaving the film interested in these women only to the extent that they affect our morose main character.
As the sad-sack Rick, Bale mopes effectively, but this searching screenwriter is merely another tool in Malick’s kit, part of a larger design of sound and images. The results can be transporting. Still, Knight of Cups will no doubt further the backlash against Malick that began in earnest with To the Wonder: critics finding his approach growing overly mannered and predictable, his pondering of the cosmos and our small place in it increasingly clichéd and ponderous. (To be sure, it wouldn’t kill Malick to crack a joke or two amidst all the hand-wringing contemplation that consumes his characters.) But even if Malick’s techniques, which once felt groundbreaking, are starting to calcify into routine, that doesn’t mean they’ve entirely lost their potency. Despite its flaws, Knight of Cups isn’t a case of the emperor having no clothes—just that this particular wardrobe is starting to look a little frayed.
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Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.