Terrence Malick’s recent burst of work — starting with “The Tree of Life” in 2011 and continued with 2012’s “To the Wonder” — has shown an increasing disinterest in the boundaries of conventional narrative. “Knight of Cups” is no exception. The gorgeous, meandering portrait of empty Hollywood-fueled hedonism and a burnt-out screenwriter (Christian Bale) struggling to escape its clutches pushes the abstract qualities of the director’s late period output to its extremes.
Filled to the brim with whispery voiceover narration, roaming camerawork and an unending collage of lush images to evoke its forlorn character’s desire to escape the clutches of vapidity, “Knight of Cups” is always lovely to regard — but only diehard Malick fans may not tire of watching the same tropes rearranged indefinitely for this two hour montage of denial, regret and spiritual yearning.
The movie’s opening minutes make it clear which cinematic universe we’re in: As John Gielgud delivers, in voiceover narration, the first of many excerpts from John Bunyan’s 1676 Christian tome “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Bale wanders a windswept beach not unlike the backdrop of the climactic sequence in “The Tree of Life.” Then Malick cuts to a CGI image of Earth seen from space, enshrouded by the northern lights and a satellite lurking above them. For Malick to open with such immediate splendor should come as no surprise, but the ensuing tale is far more grounded.
From there, “Knight of Cups” dives straight into its protagonist’s conundrum. With images of Bale’s character, Rick, running wild at a palatial house party set to Hanan Townshend’s cosmic score, narrator Brian Dennehy recounts the tale of the Knight of Cups — a tarot card figure who represents self-involvement, “sought a pearl from the depths of the sea,” but then drank from a cup that erased his memories of possessing royal blood. But “the king didn’t forget his son,” we’re reminded. So begins the chronicle of famous actor Rick, the son of a similarly distant thespian (Dennehy), facing the burdens of their family history and other travails as Rick seeks some modicum of peace. At least, that’s about as much of a traditional framework as Malick offers up.
For some time, “Knight of Cups” lingers in Rick’s troubled mindset with an appealing sense of mystery. With Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically slick visuals leading the way, Malick sketches out a backstory of sorts, as Rick squabbles with his brother (Wes Bentley) and refers to the apparent suicide of another sibling; meanwhile, he’s plagued by memories of his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) and copes with slick agents eager to get him to take on new projects.
There’s a sense of freshness to watching Malick’s dreamlike storytelling take root in a fully modern setting for the first time: Strip clubs, drab highways and even the Warner Bros. backlot take on a poetic quality that reflects Rick’s sense of dislocation. As always with Malick, individual moments hold substantial intrigue: An early sequence finds Rick feeling the ground outside his apartment in the aftermath of an earthquake as he seeks to become one with the natural world beyond the grasp of his superficial surroundings.
But Malick’s free-wheeling approach means that the movie never lingers on its compelling images or philosophical conceits too long. A tone poem on the vapidity of fame, “Knight of Cups” rarely sits still, and its restlessness eventually grow tedious. Once Rick finds himself confronting religious urges, aided by an encouraging priest, “Knight of Cups” begins to feel like a series of outtakes from any number of other Malick excursions. Pretty and discardable in equal measures, the movie illustrates ingredients of the filmmaker’s appeal while falling short of assembling them into a coherent whole.
Yet fans of Malick’s strongest work, from “Badlands” to “The Thin Red Line,” may find some allure in the new movie’s contemporary hook. Mixing home video footage from Rick’s youth with metropolitan imagery, the movie also attempts to deal with facets of pop culture through a meditative lens. In one notable sequence, Rick wanders through an expansive outdoor party populated by countless famous faces at the behest of an older star (Antonio Banderas, oddly enough riffing on his post-divorce life in a fleeting voiceover).
Recognizable faces come and go, including comedians Nick Kroll and Nick Offerman, but their appearances hardly register as more than random curiosities. Malick’s first stab at exploring the modern world is unsurprisingly out of sync with it.
Eventually, “Knight of Cups” finds some respite for the beleaguered Rick when he meets a more supportive woman (Natalie Portman) who ultimately provides him with the salvation he seeks. However, their courtship hardly registers as more than an ethereal snapshot of burgeoning romance. Despite the uplifting atmosphere surrounding the movie’s final act, “Knight of Cups” foregrounds Malick’s fetishistic obsession with small moments at the expense of lasting emotion.
One could argue, of course, that such disconnect reflects Rick’s own challenges. To that end, “Knight of Cups” succeeds. “Treat this world as it deserves,” the narrator intones. “There are no principles. Just circumstances.” It’s an apt description of the movie’s aimless rhythms throughout.
Still, there’s something inspiring about the take-no-prisoners approach of Malick’s cosmic vision, which follows its own path. In the context of a story about the restrictions of commercially-mandated filmmaking, it may be the closest we get to a mission statement in the elusive director’s career.
But even if one goes with the flow and embraces its underlying thematic focus, “Knight of Cups” falls short of sustaining a coherent stance. While its formalism resembles “To the Wonder” and “The Tree of Life,” it lacks their singular focus. By distilling his appeal to its most rudimentary elements, Malick regularly lingers on the cusp of self-parody. Rick’s struggle has its moments of magical splendor, but just as frequently feels as hazy as the diminished memory of that fabled knight.
“Knight of Cups” premiered this weekend at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
READ MORE: Christian Bale and Natalie Portman on Making ‘Knight of Cups’ With Terrence Malick