There are no actors in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups; only props.
The most important prop in this unwieldy, over-indulgent porridge of a film is Christian Bale, here ‘sitting in’ as an empty screenwriter drifting through Los Angeles, connecting with nobody and saying very little as life goes on around him like a waking dream. Along the way, he listens vacantly to other props such as Wes Bentley and Brian Dennehy as his brother and father respectively, and has sex with a laundry list of highly disposable props made up of Hollywood’s most talented actresses. Just remember: as props, one should not expect these women to demonstrate their considerable skills and their own authoritative screen presence. Instead, they have to settle for merely looking good, which unfortunately isn’t uncommon in other movies – it’s just not usually this unsubtle. If you are going to watch Knight of Cups, it would be unwise to do so because of who is on screen. In fact, it would be unwise to do so at all.
It seems the only one who is allowed an active role in a Malick film these days is Malick. Everyone else are his flesh and blood rag dolls to be made pretty for the camera, so that Our Lord Terry may make grandiose, overreaching and mirthlessly cryptic proclamations about the universe and the human condition as if he were a benevolent God and they were his prophets or, more accurately, his hollow vessels. Stripping actors of their usual ability to craft themselves into organic characters, what we are left witnessing is a kind of listless, aimless floundering from everyone who goes in front of the camera. Malick’s methods from 2011 and onward are as disrespectful to his casts as they are boring to audiences.
Similarly, there seems to be little to no coherent script, which has been backed up by several of those involved. This movie is like watching a full-length version of the Sean Penn sequences in The Tree of Life – you know, the one part in that movie that didn’t work at all, so much so that even Penn himself doesn’t get it. Again, what that leaves behind is a circuitous, tedious journey through imagery. And that’s the one place where the film shines, as Los Angeles has never looked so surreal and felt so spiritually vacant as it does through the lens of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off his third Academy Award in three years. There are specific moments, be it one long, meandering shot or a grand montage of passing buildings, that are truly hypnotizing. Combined with the rest of the movie, though, the cinematography proves to work most effectively as a form of lullaby.
There are many out there who continue to defend Malick’s pompous form of digressive, ethereal filmmaking as some sort of out of body venture that one can’t possibly look at it as traditional narrative cinema, but rather as an experiment or experience. Most accurately, Knight of Cups has been labeled a ‘tone poem’. This is very true and also very obvious, with simple dreamlike, often disjointed visuals filling the bulk of the runtime, with individuals and their relationships being a peripheral afterthought. So yes, it’s most definitely the film equivalent of a poem; the problem is, it’s an empty one.
Malick has made great visual poetry before. Days of Heaven is one of the most striking cinematic achievements of the 1970s, but that’s because in addition to dreamlike imagery, he included such simple things as a point of view, characters with identifiable characteristics, and focused themes rather than just throwing up his hands and making it about everything and simultaneously nothing at all. The second defense is that the emptiness of Knight of Cups is intentional, and thus profound. After all, it’s a movie about Hollywood, and what could be more empty, right? In this line of thought, the fact that the movie is rambling, anemic and lifeless is all just a reflection of these sad-sack characters and their vacuous lives of luxury and fame. My rebuttal is this – one can make a movie about the vapid lives of the Hollywood elite without the movie itself being equally as vapid and dull.
Case in point: Sofia Copolla, a director who has made her career around the topic of rich-and-spoiled melancholy and isolation. Her movies Lost in Translation, Somewhere and The Bling Ring all revolve around very similar characters and themes as Knight of Cups, but in their own way manage to pull some lasting, memorable substance out of the empty human voids she explores. Often she does so through dry humor, sometimes through jolts of tension. But Malick’s movie is so astonishingly lost in its self-seriousness, so impenetrable and unwilling to give audiences anything to grab on to, that it’s proposed exploration doesn’t penetrate the surface. If there is something to be gained, he clearly doesn’t want us to know what it is – it seems he’s made the film only for himself. That’s all good and fine… but I don’t have to like it. And I don’t.
I never realized a short film could last 118 minutes, but leave it to Malick to make that impossible task into an unholy reality. With Knight of Cups, the man is no longer a director; he has become a puppeteer. Yet Jim Henson had more love and respect for his lifeless, felt puppets than Malick does for his living, breathing ones. His antipathy towards any perspective but his own has become all-consuming and unavoidable. Some may call it conviction to a singular vision. I call it a stubborn ego trip that punishes audiences for caring about what he has to say. Terrence Malick is truly a cruel God, and sometimes what he produces is beautiful and wondrous. But he’s an unmerciful God nonetheless, and one whose word I can no longer subscribe to.
Score: 2 out of 5