With every passing Terrence Malick film, which seem to be coming at a more frequent pace as of late, the recluse and cryptic director develops and grows in his style. Following his monumental Tree of Life, he went from the most expansive movie of all time to something drastically more intimate in To the Wonder, a film that feels far too small compared to its predecessor. As someone who has grown to love every film in his body of work, a love that grows with repeated viewings, I am constantly amazed and in wonder at what he comes up with. Yet, following the lukewarm reception of To the Wonder, it seems that he is going down a completely different road, one that is often jumbled and hard to travel on, as with the case of Knight of Cups.
Assuredly, I will probably come to love this film a whole lot more upon repeated viewings—but the first time around with any Malick film is always going to be an overwhelming sensorial experience. With films that are as dense as they are beautiful, there is often too much to take in all at once. Following his now-typical voice-over narration along with gorgeous cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s films are not conventional in any sense of the word except for the fact that they are a story committed to celluloid. His films, however, are more meditations than anything else as Malick lingers on a topic and uses film to reflect his mindset. In Knight of Cups’ sake, it is a meditation on Hollywood and a man who has lost his way.
Christian Bale plays Rick, a writer in LA who lives a life of excess, lust, and indulgence. Over the course of the film he engages in several different relationships that offer him various lessons on his life, most of which are romantic relationships with a bevy of women including Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and Isabel Lucas. To judge each on their performances is also unconventional, as Malick strays away from scripts and allows for a pure, natural style of acting resulting in beautiful performances of “essences,” not your typical rehearsed lines.
As the film progresses there are glimpses of what Malick is overall trying to reach, but it becomes bogged down by a pace that slows to a dreadful crawl near the end. Since Malick spends years editing his films, one must go in knowing that everything is in the film for a specific reason, so it becomes challenging for the audience to make sense of certain scenes or images. Knight of Cups perhaps suffers the most from this as it is his most radically unique films yet in terms of what is being portrayed, but he never allows the audience to always have a grasp of the material, which makes him supremely frustrating at times. Perhaps the issue isn’t that material is scattered, but rather too specifically focused on its story for its own good. Films like Thin Red Line and Tree of Life deal with some heft themes: life, death, the nature of war, maturity, all taking centerstage while the story feels more like the vessel for the themes. To the Wonder and Knight of Cups on the other hand feel too absorbed in their own story and deal with themes that feel far too inconsequential and not broad enough to require more thought than an obtuse character study of a doomed relationship or a man who has lost his way.
I guess I need to answer the real question of the review, “is this a good film?” And unfortunately the answer is not so easy. Malick is a powerful, brilliant filmmaker who knows exactly what he is doing, but Knight of Cups feels far too jumbled for Malick’s sake. Perhaps this cycle of films following Tree of Life is him experimenting with a new style that will result in a cumulative work that represents the full growth of his new era of filmmaking.