Full confession up front: I don’t “get” Terrence Malick. The filmmaker has an admirable eye for breathtaking imagery & in theory I like the idea of the way he deconstructs the very concept of narrative cinema, but I simply get no enjoyment out his work. The much-beloved Tree of Life in particular might be the single most personally disappointing trip to the theater I can remember, based on the critical hype I was riding in and the wave of dejection I rode out. As a collection of isolated images Tree of Life succeeds in provoking awe & reflection. As a two hour theatrical experience, however, it’s an extreme exercise in patience with Sean Penn whispering vague, pretentious nothings about humanity & motherhood.
I mention this here because Knight of Cups is a deliberate doubling down on Tree of Life’s worst impulses. It trades in the former film’s suburban America setting for a similar snapshot of a wealthy man’s vacuous life in Los Angeles & swaps out Sean Penn’s whispered vagueries for those of Christian Bale, but the results are mostly the same. I feel like both Tree of Life & Knight of Cups establish their best selves & all they can offer in their opening few minutes, as if they were a resume for a cinematic skillset instead of an actual product. Both films have the feeling of an art school student trying to prove their worth in an early gig car commercial, except the car never arrives & the credits never roll. What frustrates me the most about Malick is his obvious wealth of raw material. If there weren’t so much technical skill displayed in his films I’d never feel the need to return to his work, but there’s too much promise here for me to simply walk away. He’s the filmmaking Roadrunner to my critical Wile E. Coyote. I just keep returning for more punishment, never learning my lesson.
It would feel disingenuous to tack on a plot synopsis for a review of Knight of Cups. The best I can put it is that Christian Bale is sad from having casual sex with too many beautiful models & attending too many Hollywood soirees. He navigates a world of strippers, luchadores, outer space, pool parties, and nothingness. Malick constructs “fragments, pieces of a man” in a disorienting display that might be intended to mirror the emptiness of his protagonist’s existence, but ultimately feels far too exhausting & reverently celebratory in the process to resonate as meaningful. There are a few interesting moments here or there – like when a promise of stillness is interrupted by an earthquake or when you can spot a seemingly random Famous Beautiful Person, say Joe Manganiello, in the background of an L.A. party – but for the most part the film is a wash. Once it hits its hypnotic rhythm it’s extremely difficult to focus on. The voice over becomes a foreign language and the beauty in the imagery loses its initial poetry. By the end credits there’s nothing left to feel but drained, empty, and at least a little bit cheated.
The wealth, beauty and ennui of Knight of Cups feels very much akin to a music video. Imagine, if you dare, a version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film where nearly every actor is white and all of the pop music has been replaced with more spoken word poetry. Better yet, imagine Kanye West begging on loop that there please be “No More Parties in L.A.” for two solid hours with no indication that the party will, in fact, ever stop. The opening title card of Knight of Cups suggests that the film would be best enjoyed with the volume cranked, but I felt the exact opposite way. The film is probably best enjoyed with the soundtrack muted & replaced with something more narratively exciting & cohesive, like a rap album or, honestly, dead silence while you take care of some household chores.
I would say that after this film & Inland Empire I’m proving to have a back track record with the glacial, narratively sparse high art meditations end of cinema, but that’s not necessarily true. I fell madly in love with The Neon Demon & Heart of a Dog, which while not on an exactly comparable wavelength as Knight of Cups, at least follow a similar approach to valuing imagery & cinematic hypnosis over linear storytelling. The truth is probably a lot more likely that Knight of Cups wasn’t my thing because Malick himself just doesn’t do it for me. He probably never will, but I’m too fascinated with the glimpses of brilliance lurking in his exhaustive haze of artistic pretension to walk away. Much like Wile E. Coyote, I suspect this won’t be the last time I fall off this particular cliff. I’ll just keep doing it forever.