Once upon a time Terrence Malick was a revered filmmaker, especially after his first two films – the powerful Badlands and the visually beautiful Days of Heaven. But lately he seems to have become more obtuse in his filmmaking, churning out soporific and dull psychological claptrap. Since when was it almost compulsory to need a PhD to decipher and interpret a film and find deeper meaning beneath the surface?
The rot set in with his critically acclaimed but dull The Tree of Life, which divided audiences and critics alike. The Tree of Life was an impressionistic, introspective and existential journey through the meaning of life and big issues like that mystical connection between man and nature. Malick perfected his idiosyncratic approach and style with the even more oblique To the Wonder, which was full of small vignettes and largely whispered, almost inaudible dialogue, and an almost plotless narrative structure staged with a lack of pace and energy. His seventh feature film Knight of Cups offers much the same, but it is a peculiarly inert film that will hardly appeal to a mainstream audience.
The film takes its title from the Tarot card, The Knight of Cups which represents change, new excitement and can even mean new opportunities/ But the character is also constantly bored and on the lookout for new challenges. When reversed, the card represents fraud, false promises and trickery, which seems to sum up what Malick offers his audience here.
The Knight of Cups here refers to the central character Rick (played by a bemused and uncomfortable looking Christian Bale), an LA based script writer undergoing an existential crisis. He is trying to come to terms with the death of one brother and the plight of another brother who is deeply troubled. He also has trouble forming relationships and lasting emotional connections with people. He spends most of the film wandering through various locations trying to make sense of the world around him and the vapid lifestyle of Hollywood with its parties, pools and power brokers. At one stage, Bale is seen walking through a desert, rather like Moses looking for some form of divine guidance.
Visually Malick shows us some grand vistas, ranging from wide open natural settings to long highways and cold glass towers, but what it all means is harder to discern. There is a certain repetition of imagery throughout the film. The film has been poetically and fluidly shot by Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman), who captures some beautiful images as well as nailing the stark and soulless nature of Hollywood itself.
Much of the dialogue and the scenes were improvised by the cast who worked around the bare bones structure provided by Malick. According to Bale, Malick didn’t tell his actors what the film was about. People will interpret Malick’s film in different ways according to their own experiences and personal perceptions.
Somehow though Malick has attracted a solid cast, that includes Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman in thinly sketched characters, along with the likes of Antonio Banderas, Jason Clarke, Teresa Palmer, and Ben Kingsley’s pretentious voice over narration. Brian Dennehy (First Blood) plays Rick’s distant father, railing angrily against the world and the painful past and even his other ne’er do well son (Wes Bentley, from American Beauty).
While the film itself may look beautiful, the esoteric Knight of Cups fails to provide any real insight into its protagonist, nor does it connect with audiences on a more emotional level.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television