KNIGHT OF CUPS * *
Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots and Brian Dennehy. Written and directed by Terrence Malick.
In a characteristically harsh assessment of his 1996 gonzo divorce-chronicle Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh lamented that he “probably crossed the line between personal filmmaking and private filmmaking.” Being a big Schizopolis fan I happen to think he’s wrong, but Soderbergh’s quip came to mind an awful lot during Knight Of Cups. Terrence Malick’s mesmerizingly inscrutable seventh feature no doubt contains all sorts of richness and meaning to Terrence Malick, but for the rest of us it’s something of a slog.
The suddenly prolific (at least by Malick standards) seventy-two-year-old filmmaker continues down the increasingly abstract, ambiguously autobiographical road of 2011’s The Tree Of Life and the following year’s To The Wonder. Malick has abandoned the grand, historical canvases of The Thin Red Line and The New World for a more modern spiritual crisis, with a stand-in for the filmmaker (first Sean Penn, then Ben Affleck and now Christian Bale) walking through our wicked world, familiar sights made strange by Emmanuel Lubezki’s wandering, restless camera.
You won’t find much dialogue, nor any conventional “scenes.” Even moreso than To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups is basically a feature-length montage. Conversations have been cut prismatically and are drowned out mid-sentence by voice-over or classical music cues. The camera tends to drift away from whomever’s talking to observe stray shards of sunlight poking their way through the palm trees. From moment to moment the technique can be rapturous, and taken out of context any given few minutes of Knight Of Cups are thrilling to watch. It’s just when you have a hundred and eighteen of those minutes in a row that it becomes numbing.
Combining elements from Tree Of Life and To The Wonder, we’ve once again got a mean dad (this time played by Brian Dennehy), a dead brother and a live one (Wes Bentley), plus the legendarily private Malick apparently confessing that he used to be a really shitty boyfriend. Christian Bale’s “Rick” is the hottest comedy writer in Hollywood (this is presumably meant to mirror the director’s days as a secret script-doctor, though the notion of frowny-pants Bale penning jokes feels more like science-fiction) drifting through lavish Hollywood parties in a besotted haze, drowning in pussy and grousing on the soundtrack about how lost he is.
“We’re not leading the lives that we were meant for. We were meant for something else,” says his lady-friend Imogen Poots, the first of six gorgeous women who cycle through the film, unable to break through our protagonist’s malaise. A recording of John Gielgud reading The Pilgrim’s Progress shows up on the soundtrack sometimes, as does Dennehy telling the tale of a knight on a quest who lost his way. The film is broken up into eight chapters, each named after a tarot card for reasons that after two viewings I still have yet to ascertain.
The psychological stasis of Bale’s stunted screenwriter is formally matched by the film’s narrative redundancy. Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer and Natalie Portman drift in and out of the picture, unable to emotionally reach The Glummest Libertine, who spends most of the movie walking slowly with his hands in his pockets and eyes downcast as his women circle around him. The actresses serve more as symbols and stand-ins than characters, yet still somehow seem way too good for the dour dude — which I guess may be part of the point of whatever self-flagellating exercise Malick is undertaking here.
Strikingly photographed as the party sequences may be, there’s no emotional release in Bale’s debauchery. Knight Of Cups feels heavy, churchy and scolding, with only a too-brief cameo from Antonio Banderas as a hedonistic host lightening up the monotony. (Having played Guido on Broadway in Nine, he’s much more adept than Bale at the Mastroianni trick of being sympathetically decadent.) However gussied up with pretty pictures and fancy editing, two hours is still a terribly long time to spend watching a pouty Hollywood asshole who gets laid all the time mope around feeling sorry for himself.
As someone who considers Malick’s first four films stone masterpieces, the increasing narrowness of his vision is a disheartening development. The compassion and generosity bestowed upon even the most transient characters in The Thin Red Line or The New World are nowhere to be found in this solipsistic wallow. The Tree Of Life’s gaudy “jazz heaven” finale for the first time hinted at a banality beneath Malick’s transcendental mojo, and Knight Of Cups ends with Bale scaling a rock edifice similar to the one Penn walked in the previous picture. Three movies later and the pilgrim has made no progress.