When it comes to reviewing a Terrence Malick film, the normal criteria doesn’t apply. Since his first (and arguably best) feature Badlands in 1973, Malick has progressively imbued more philosophical musings into his films to the point where they are obtuse, almost incapable of being decipherable. As a result, viewers of Malick’s films are usually divided into two camps: those who find his images beautiful but lacking substance, and those who approach every new film by the director as a spiritual event. Emotions ranging from awe and appreciation to anger and frustration abound from viewers. For Malick’s Knight of Cups, which opens this week, viewers may find it his most inaccessible film to date—which is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reminder that audiences should keep their certain expectations in check.
If Malick’s previous film To The Wonder seemed to be a thematic sequel to his beautiful and ponderous The Tree of Life, then Knight of Cups may be considered The Tree of Life: Part Three. Christian Bale returns to work with the director, having previously appeared in Malick’s take on the Pocahontas story in The New World. In a nutshell, the story follows a writer named Rick who is currently sleepwalking through life looking for love. While he navigates his way around Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he encounters six women who attempt to break him out of his current disenchantment. Concurrently, he fails to find a way to mend the wounds between himself and his brother, Barry (Wes Bentley), and father (a superb Brian Dennehy) years after one of their brother’s allegedly committed suicide.
As Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki photograph the city Rick must navigate, sadly the images remain as detached as Rick is from reality; they neither engage the viewer or seem to stand for something deeper under their sheen. This can make the viewing frustrating because the set pieces and images are just as out of sync with the voice overs and dialogue. In addition, what little dialogue there is in the film only seems to confound matters, rather than clarify them. For example, Della (Imogen Poots) in voice over says of Rick, “You were not looking for love, you were looking for a love experience.” In the context of their brief relationship, this makes sense, but in the context of the film as a whole, such a pointed statement does not fully summarize Rick’s range of feelings or represent one of the many thematic arcs of the story.
Malick has assembled an A-list cast for this film that includes Cate Blanchett, Antonio Banderas, Natalie Portman, Theresa Palmer (The Choice), Isabel Lucas (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire). However, they aren’t given much to do on screen. They appear as shells of people, rather than fully fledged characters. As a result, their significance in Rick’s life is underplayed and ultimately unmoving.
In a scene between Rick and his brother, Barry states, “I want to feel something,” as he pokes his palm with a fork and later, as he tries to spar with his brother. Barry’s admission can aptly apply to an audience member’s wish for Malick’s film. The final two segments of the film try to break away from Malick’s survey of depravity and emotionless people into the realm of transcendence, but the segments never reach the heights of The Tree of Life.
Instead, there is little emotion evoked from a spark of an idea, which doesn’t cumulate into a satisfying story. The film sprawls for nearly two hours, looking pretty but sadly saying very little. In regards to Malick’s career, it could be said he has arguably not made a bad film to date, per se; with each film he seems to have expanded his craft and become more certain of the intent he wishes to convey. However, it’s disappointing when that intent doesn’t translate to the screen in a digestible way for his audience—which appears to be the case with Knight of Cups, a film with grand intentions that lacks substance under the surface.
Knight of Cups
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Brian Dennehy, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Wes Bentley
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Running time: 118 minutes