While not a proselytizer, I generally consider myself a devotee of Terrence Malick. Considering that nearly every cinephile is or has been some kind of advocate for the filmmaker, this isn’t a bold statement. But it is a reminder that the dedicated have congregated around the cult of Malick, his personal elusiveness and his artistic singularity for several decades. The legendary director behind “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” —who took a 20-year absence from cinema, only to triumphantly return in 1998 with the meditative war film “The Thin Red Line”— has had such a distinct impact on cinema that he’s practically created his own genre. Any contemplative, dreamy and poetic film with impressionist cues that revere and revel in natural beauty is often described as such, sometimes even reductively (see “The Revenant,” which is its own beast, but shares visual grandiloquence due to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Malick now use the same DP, three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki).
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For about thirty years, Malick enjoyed near godhead status with cinephiles, which continued after his return to cinema and culminated in 2011 with “The Tree Of Life,” his long-gestating magnum opus about family, fatherhood, the meaning of life and the universe itself. The picture won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, despite earning mixed reviews at the time —for our part, it’s undoubtedly deeply moving and beautiful, but it didn’t quite crack the top 10 in our Best Films Of The Decade list).
But devotion to Malick has been trending downward ever since. 2012’s “To The Wonder” radically deepened the critical schism that “The Tree of Life” had revealed, and divided critics to the point that many of the more censorious voices called the film a parody of his style (New York Magazine described his latest film, “Knight Of Cups” as exactly that last week; Rex Reed was typically scathing). Even “To The Wonder” star Ben Affleck, who described the movie as making “‘Tree Of Life’ look like ‘Transformers’” before it came out, seemed to be confused or disappointed with the final product and the overall experience. And longtime production designer Jack Fisk described the movie at the time as “Malick on steroids”; everyone involved was seemingly pushing the bigger/badder/better narrative. But a more experimental approach, while seemingly exciting at the outset, has not necessarily proven to be for the best.
Regardless, Malick doubled-down again on that same aesthetic for his latest film “Knight Of Cups,” which opened earlier this month and stars Christian Bale with featured appearances by Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, among others. The movie is about a screenwriter (Bale) in the throes of a incapacitating existential despair. While there’s no plot to speak of, it’s implied that Hollywood is the black hole that has vacuumed his soul and his artistic integrity, and has left him a vacant shell full of pain and regret, though family plays a crucial role too. Running over with a very specific form of male self-pity, the writer then moves from woman to woman, ostensibly as a band-aid remedy for his spiritual emptiness. He’s also gone through a divorce, though it seems to have hurt his wife more than him (One of the semi-amusing elements of Bale’s character is that he’s a comedy screenwriter —absolutely nothing in the movie suggests it or the character have a sense of humor; perhaps that’s Malick’s love for “Zoolander” shining through briefly?)
To be less glib: while I’m not personally ready to write off Malick just yet, it is understandable that stockholder faith has been shaken (which was arguably further evinced in the ho-hum opening weekend results of its limited theatrical release and its very low Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores). As detailed in our review from Berlin last year, it could be argued that “Knight of Cups” is an extended trailer for a movie that never arrives, or are the first-draft dailies of a film that still requires a singular vision. Malick’s film may be intended to be a drifting narrative about an aimless man in spiritual crisis wandering through the wreckage of his empty life (as told through searching-for-answers voiceovers), but the effect can leave the viewer similarly adrift.
In many ways, “Knight Of Cups” feels like a not-that-distant spiritual sequel to “The Tree Of Life” beyond its obvious aesthetic similarities. Both films center on father/son issues and family dynamics/fissures. And ‘Cups’ even begins in similar fashion, with a man wandering the desert, plus it features a sort of poor-man’s version of the celestial opening of ‘Tree’: this time, it’s just a quick few shots tracking the planet’s orbit and a luminous shot of Aurora Borealis from outer space.
Remember when Emmanuel Lubezki said there could be a “whole other movie” made about Sean Penn’s character in ‘Tree Of Life’? That could be “Knight Of Cups”: instead of following the troubled patriarch (Brad Pitt) in ‘Tree Of Life,’ one could see it as an inverse version following Penn’s character. And the father in ‘Cups’ (Brian Dennehy, who has a surprisingly big part in the film, relatively speaking) is still alive, so clearly they have a very broken relationship.
“Knight Of Cups” is obviously meant to be a movie about the emptiness found within a hollow, spiritually bankrupt Los Angeles. But the litany of cameos underscores its own superficiality —such cameos can be the chief danger of making a movie about shallowness. Even Bale’s Rick is barely a character in the film, so the game of spot-the-celebrity throughout the movie loses its power quickly, especially when none of the Tinseltown cut-outs who litter the film have much to say or do. The douchebaggery that alienates Bale’s character is only accentuated by these brief, fleeting appearances onscreen; a self-perpetuating cycle of vacuity without the power to convey any sense of the emotional devastation of being utterly lost.
Elsewhere, it’s remarkable to hear an actress like Isabel Lucas celebrate the knowledge that she made the film’s final cut, only to see the disheartening size and nature of her role; she’s another female wisp that dances around largely unclothed, her face barely shown. To that end, the depiction of women in the movie is similarly flimsy and shallow. If the waifs aren’t dancing, twirling or running around half- or just plain buck-naked, you can seldom see their faces —‘Cups’ has a bad habit of framing women so that their faces are obscured, excised or unclear (you literally need to freeze frame the movie to catch a still of Lucas’ face). The repetition of such presentation —bodies without faces, let alone identity— supports the continued suggestion that women are thin projections and objects of desire for Rick. And of the women who do receive screen time, Teresa Palmer’s stripper character is a straightforwardly vacuous carnal temptation for Rick (though luckily for her, he does hang out with her off-hours to play in a parking lot with a shopping cart, as lovers are wont to do).
Granted, there are a few women in key roles that Rick spends some degree of time with: namely, his ex-wife, played by Blanchett, a lover played by Portman, plus a fling of sorts played by Imogen Poots. Blanchett does anchor the movie remarkably if briefly, using incredibly limited screen time to lend it a credible air of soulfulness and melancholy; it’s a hint of the devastating pain that has lead Rick to his existential walkabout. But mostly, the women are only distractions who briefly enter his life and evaporate into memory as his lustful impulses compel him to chase after another girl. Sure, it’s a connection Rick is actually seeking —perhaps it’s a fuck-the-pain-away self-medication for his many psychological problems— but that doesn’t mean his endeavor is any less vacant. And of course, this is the point: Bale’s Rick is adrift and spiritually forfeit, so he fills his days with sex and drugs, women and purposelessness. But “Knight Of Cups” is so insubstantial that it threatens to dissolve to nothing: its weightlessness is unmoored to any kind of substance. Perhaps the father/son story is meant to be ballast, but the fragmented quality of the movie only allows for “I’ve got daddy issues” and little else.
There’s something to be said for a movie that manages to skirt story, character, plot and any other traditional building block of narrative, and instead embodies pure emotion and feeling. It can be done, and arguably Malick has achieved such a thing several times in his career. But Malick’s new hyper-emphasis on this technique undoes the fragile equilibrium that made his movies great, tipping his aesthetic too far into the ether. And the magniloquent voice-over presenting several points of view in the film makes it feel all the more diffuse. Films that can pull off fragmented poetry without much dialogue or plot can be the ne plus ultra of “pure cinema”; it can be moving picture art at its highest form. But “Knight Of Cups” establishes everything it’s going to say about a yearning spiritual bankruptcy masked by hedonism within the first 15 minutes, and yet runs for two hours. Looping through different women, different cards of the tarot and different phases of Rick’s life, it simply becomes a repetitive echo of dwindling impact and diminishing returns. For a stronger take on these themes, see Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” which conveys that nexus of decadence and metaphysical emptiness with more power and resonance.
As far as we can surmise, Malick’s next film, “Weightless,” which was shot back to back with “Knight Of Cups” and features much of the same cast, employs the same style, mood and artistic application. Many filmmakers admit they tend make the same film over and over again thematically, but it’s usually rather better disguised than “Knight Of Cups” (see Michael Mann). Yet it feels like Malick has made the same tired concept record three times in a row now, and with a fourth waiting in the wings. And as for “Weightless,” which centers on two intersecting love triangles set against the music scene in Austin, Texas— are we going to receive anything different than a series of actors engaged in a similar sexual obsession, but then questioning the choices and betrayals they’re engaged in?
It’s a curious corner Malick seems to have painted himself into, and one has to wonder (and worry) if he’ll find a way out of it. There’s been much talk of the speed with which Malick makes movies now, but celebration that we don’t have to wait 20 years between pictures has given way to trepidation recently. Perhaps quantity is working against the quality that cemented his reputation as one of our most formidable living directors.
Because it’s hard to dispute that a “disposable” narrative has formed around his recent films, with many apostates beginning to suggest the Emperor has no clothes. Of course, the truth of the matter is that Terrence Malick owes me nothing, he owes you nothing, and he will march to the eccentric rhythm of his own drum, popularity be damned. But as the evocativeness of his former films becomes elusive and the heady thematic depths he achieved prior start to shallow out, feel overfamiliar and trite, one wonders if the filmmaker has gone back to the same well one too many times. The sad thing for me is that it’s becoming harder and harder to defend Malick against the very criticisms that unbelievers have always levied, and which previously, as a devotee, I could have swatted away.