An experimental dud. Knight of Cups is really out there, but it gets uninteresting quick. I confess to have been gripped by the first ten minutes, which is a montage of free association images that are shot in director Terrence Malick’s trademark raw, fluttering like a butterfly way: a desert, rolling tides at a beach, a cactus, a swanky hanky-panky party, an Asian dominatrix/ party doll in black & white, freeway tunnels, skyscrapers, and dozens of other images that cut in and out so fast I couldn’t fully absorb them. Granted, the images are beautiful. And metaphorical with a message that says that we are all specimens driven to act in tide with everything else by whatever social climate we happen to be trapped under. Christian Bale is our main character and indecipherable void, a spiritually bankrupt Los Angeles denizen and sought after screenwriter. He goes through a series of meaningless and corrosive relationships (Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), but meaninglessness is the operative word. I see I’m shooting off in all kinds of directions in my description. To make it easy for you, the film, to sum up in a word, is about one thing: Ennui.
I am a lifelong Terrence Malick loyalist, enthusiast, protector, so it gives me no pleasure to say his latest is not worth it. “Knight of Cups” is a little ditty of a piece by Malick, and while it serves as a companion piece / interlink piece to his masterpiece “The Tree of Life,” it is not a broadening one that enriches the conversation. And for the Malick devotees out there who are like me, I am being your protector when I tell you it’s a blot in the mind to your revere of him and to your immaculate memory of his oeuvre as a whole.
Of course there have been other filmmakers that have taken liberties to devote an entire film to being meandering as well as play as a tone poem on the feeling of ennui. For full blown-out avante-garde challenge, try the wordless, deliberately puzzling, yet visually poetic “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961). Spike Jonze’s “Her” seems more like a miracle every time I take a look at it of a melancholy man attached to his computer and society trapped in a bubble. Charlie Kaufman has been an expert at writing and directing films about a person’s inner dissatisfaction and alienation. South Korean Kim Ki-Duk is one of my favorite filmmakers (“3-Iron,” “The Isle”). The 2005 Japanese film “Tony Takitani” is a somber heartbreaker, the epitome of a cinematic tone poem, and totally underrated. Throw a dart at any Michelangelo Antonioni film from the ‘60’s that all specialized at ennui, though with all on his slate I would tell you to choose “L’Avventura” (1960).
You attend a film like “Knight of Cups” knowing (hopefully) that there should be no plot expected, and that it’s going to be a meditative experience. There’s a sore lack of supple here, if I may use the word supple bluntly, and after a few interesting minutes there is so very little left to intellectually nibble on. Images are slapped together in a deliberately discordant manner. I can’t remember when Bale actually first talks in the film. I knew why Ben Affleck didn’t speak in Malick’s last film in 2013, which to that date was his most telling dichotomy of good and bad, “To the Wonder.” But Bale as an un-speaking Hollywood libertine who is coasting on easy success doesn’t make sense here (the tarot cards hold more weight). In truth, I liked the Natalie Portman scenes best, although she comes last. There are a number of stunning images, but they’re sandwiched in-between the banal.
If you know enough about Malick you’re aware he’s less interested in making films for a wide audience than being an artist who makes films that satisfy himself – it’s his creed to be experimental. Still, making any kind of sardonic stab at Hollywood (by using Bale playing a screenwriter as his framing device), seems so beneath him. Malick, sir, it’s been a blemish for us, but as an artist, why waste your time on this project?
118 Minutes. Rated R.
AVANTE-GARDE / CEREBRAL / WEEKEND SNOOZE-FEST
Film Cousins: “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961, France); “Slipstream” (2007); “Synedoche, New York” (2008); “The Congress” (2014).
Note: The Anthony Hopkins directorial debut “Slipstream” is as close in comparison, however far worse as incoherent, experimental filmmaking as you can get – that one is a flaming bonkers-in-the-head disaster. I do recommend the other three films mentioned, though.