"All those years, living the life of someone I didn't even know"
Warning, what follows is the obligatory paragraph that is accompanied with every review of a new Terrance Malick movie, the reviewer’s opinion of his career. Over 40 years Malick has made just seven films, and my relationship with his career has been one of highs and lows. I regard three of his movies as undisputable masterpieces, I adored ‘Badlands’, was astounded by ‘Gates of Heaven’ and I loved ‘The Thin Red Line’. But I was left frustrated by ‘The New World’ and was bored by ‘To the Wonder’ as it felt more like a parody of a Malick movie. As for ‘The Tree of Life’, well I’m still trying to wrap my head around it (my appreciation of it has only grown since I first saw it though, so it might grow further yet), so with his latest outing as a director, anything could happen.
A disconnected Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) feels as if his life lacks meaning, so he attempts to search for it through the hollow streets of Los Angeles, encountering eccentric playboys (Antonio Banderas), jilted lovers (Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman), young rebels (Imogen Poots) and a whole host of other characters.
I wanted to like ‘Knight of Cups’, I really did. Even the Malick movies that I adored are certainly not for everyone, but for me ‘Knight of Cups’ represents another folly into random nonsense that may resonate for some, but not for me. It crushes me to say that because I went into this film with what I like to think is a very open mind. Malick has covered many different genres such as crime, drama, war and whatever the hell ‘The Tree of Life’ was about. I’ve always admired his ability to create atmosphere, evoke emotions purely through imagery and craft some of the most breath-taking visuals ever put to celluloid.
Herein lies my problem with ‘Knight of Cups’, it did not tick any of those boxes. Now I admit it is cynical to judge a filmmaker based on your own specific criteria of what you think his films should represent with their themes and style, especially one like Malick. But I would at least expect something else, but with ‘Knight of Cups’ there does not appear to be anything. The images of it appear empty and meaningless, as well as not particularly beautiful, especially when you compare it to Malick’s other films. To this day I still regard ‘Days of Heaven’ as the most visually beautiful movie ever made.
For the first half an hour I was intrigued by ‘Knight of Cups’, I found it riveting, engaging and complex and could not wait to see how it built upon these ideas and developed the story or characters. But then it just carried on going in the same tone, for another hour and forty minutes, and I’m sorry but that is too long to be fed images of people walking along beaches, wandering stylish suburbs and hanging out around swimming pools accompanied by existential whispering narration that, again, while intriguing at first, becomes tiresome and repetitive after two hours. Then there are the characters, whom I never got to know. After two hours I didn't get any depth into their personalities, goals, accomplishments, nothing. After a while you start to loose sympathy with the handsome rich white male and his existential crisis. I mean, we've all been there right?
Apparently most of the scenes were improvised and Malick neglected to tell the actors what the movie was about while filming. It is curious that as his career has progressed he has become more experimental. His earlier films have all had a cohesive story, even if the emphasis is placed on imagery and music there was always something to underpin the surreal sequences. Even ‘The Tree of Life’ had the story of a 1950s Texas family that just happened to be told as a parallel to the birth of the universe and presented in non-linear manner, but nonetheless it was something. I am not saying that Malick should use cohesive stories or stop being experimental, but his films need something to give them a sense consistency and meaning.
If anything ‘Knight of Cups’ has just made me question what the difference is between leaving your film open to interpretation and just not bothering to say anything with your film. While I am sure that Malick himself understands what the movie is about, we do not and ultimately that is a major problem. For me there was nothing to find, nothing to explore or interpret. This is actually the first Malick movie that I cannot imagine myself re-watching, there was nothing to compel me, no images to startle me and no hidden message within.
While admirable, it felt rather empty and hollow.