In Terrence Malick’s meandering “Knight of Cups,” Rick is a bored screenwriter (Christian Bale) floating through the high and low of Hollywood. The director has adopted the same cinematic approach in his two films since “Tree of Life,” both shot by Oscar-winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, whose camera follows the characters through myriad spaces and landscapes, accompanied by voice-over narrations and lush classical music. The Austin-based Malick, 72, likes to shoot in an improvisational piecemeal way, waiting for inspiration to hit as he keeps his actor collaborators on hand. (They never know how or if they will wind up in the final product, shaped over time in the editing room.)
Check out these reports of what it’s like filming with Malick.
Malick usually follows a male protagonist (Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale) through interactions with other characters, often beautiful women. With 2011’s Cannes-winning entry “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s method cohered into a powerful narrative centered on a family dominated by a powerful father (Brad Pitt in his best performance to date) and loving mother (Jessica Chastain).
But having evolved this aesthetic, the subsequent “To the Wonder” and again, 2015’s Berlin world premiere “Knight of Cups” lack the gravitas and substance of “Tree of Life” and repeat many of the same philosophical concerns. Malick asks the basic questions we all do: “Who am I? Which way should I go? How do I begin? How do I find happiness?” Bale expresses his thoughts on the soundtrack, with little live dialogue. And Ben Kingsley intones various quotations from “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
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Again, figuring in the meandering tale is another powerful father, a revered stage actor played by a stoop-shouldered Brian Dennehy, who fights with one angry son (Wes Bentley) who has not achieved like his screenwriter brother (Bale). The A-list screenwriter (he wanders through the Warner Bros. back lot) is lost in a maze of parties and womanizing, and seeks to recover the happiness he felt when he was married to Cate Blanchett. Is finding the right woman the answer? Bale carries the movie with far more soul and emotion than Affleck was able to muster in “To the Wonder.”
The other improvement with “Knight of Cups” is that Malick ventures to Los Angeles, offering a lush Lubezki travelogue of often familiar locations for any tourist: as Rick, Bale stares soulfully at the crashing Pacific at magic hour with several gorgeous love interests: his ex-wife (Blanchett), an actress (Imogen Poots), a married woman (Natalie Portman) and a nubile stripper (Teresa Palmer). With the exception of Blanchett, they are beautiful but vacant personalities. Dialogue would help.
Bale cruises in a vintage convertible or limo to various Hollywood hillside mansions—including one extraordinary party attended by the likes of real-life screenwriter-author Bruce Wagner and actors Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, and Jason Clarke. Rick experiences an unsettlingly intense earthquake at his beach-side apartment, as well as a robbery, checks out the lamp posts at the LA County Museum, drives along the billboards on Sunset Boulevard, saunters through the Warner Bros. lot with his ex-wife and real agents Rick Hess and Patrick Whitesell, consults his agent at CAA (Michael Wincott) on the Avenue of the Stars, inevitably parties down at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, wanders in the desert like Moses, checks out the Japanese designs at the Huntington Gardens with author Peter Mathiessen (who has since left us), and walks through seedy sections of downtown LA that few residents would visit on foot. There he visits a Tarot card reader, who provides names for the different sections of the film such as “The Moon” and “The Hanged Man,” as well as its title.
You can relax and enjoy Lubezki’s gorgeous images, from mist rolling over a hillside to inventive underwater perspectives. Mostly they are shallow views of a banal life and offer the male gaze on the female form in many lovely guises. Not a new narrative, this.