Cups half empty.
Terence Malick films have always walked a fine line between emotional resonance and pretentious indulgence, and Knight of Cups unequivocally crosses it.Malick admirers/apologists can see the beauty in almost everything the filmmaker has made over his stop-start career, from his early classics Badlands and Days of Heaven, to arguably his greatest work – the underappreciated masterpiece that is The Thin Red Line – but his 21st Century endeavours have been decidedly and increasingly Malickian, which, with each successive outing, leave more and more of his fans out in the cold. His dreamy take on Pocahontas, The New World, was an undoubtedly beautiful period piece which tapped into the heart of the story of love and discovery, and The Tree of Life, whilst alienating many, was arguably his most personal, but also most audacious work.It was a very intimate look at family, nature, nurture and the meaning of life which, for those who appreciated it, was a unique and touching experience. However, rather than take his distinctive visual style and almost dialogue-less approach to ethereal, emotive filmmaking – you don’t watch Malick films, you absorb them – and tackle a new subject, he instead revisited overly familiar territory for his next film, a meandering modern romantic drama, To the Wonder. Whilst flawed, it was nevertheless still quintessentially Malickian, but Knight of Cups strays further down the same path: a drama about a meandering, lost soul in Hollywood who flits from relationship to relationship in search of... something.
Hollywood is a tough arena to set a film in, and it normally only works when you take a sympathetic outsider and inject them into the vacuous, cut-throat environment. Here the tale follows Christian Bale’s seeming empty shell of a screenwriter, who looks pained and moody for the most part, but for when he’s either a) engaging in one of a half-dozen supposedly ‘serious’ relationships that provide the ‘chapter’ points in the story or b) sleeping with prostitutes (who, insofar as this movie is concerned, always come in pairs). It’s such a tough life. Who to choose from? Cate Blanchett’s doctor, Natalie Portman’s married woman, or Frieda Pinto’s model? Bale certainly tries to convince us that life’s tough. But, honestly, it's an impossible task. Nobody is that convincing.
It’s literally like watching a pained billionaire Bruce Wayne mope around with supermodels for two hours without knowing he’s secretly also Batman.
This is just rich kids moaning about a lack of purpose territory, truly self-indulgent, pretentious ramblings (supposedly autobiographical – charting Malick’s own lost years in Hollywood) with no substance whatsoever, and nothing to relate to, attach to, or feel. Sure, it's pretty, exquisitely shot, but it's becoming comical watching just how many dialogue-less shots he can get of lead characters swaying in the wind, staring off into the horizon, in beautiful landscapes. You start to wonder what they're thinking. "How did I get here?" "Where's the script?" "Am I supposed to be looking at anything in particular?" "What do you mean, 'I can't check my phone?'"
Malick has somehow disappeared so far up himself that he's become an expert at self-parody, without even knowing it, with Knight of Cups playing out as the antithesis of everything he's done before - meaningless imagery; purposeless vacancy. If his mission was to highlight the emptiness of life by making a film which was, itself, as empty as could be, then he has undoubtedly succeeded.
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