Terrence Malick is pushing it. For years, he's been falling deeper and deeper into artsy-fartsy territory. Sometimes, his long and winding explorations of physical and human nature are absolutely spellbinding. His 2011 film, The Tree of Life, hypnotized me as it slowly tied the history of a troubled family to the evolution of Earth. Sure, it may seem like a pretentious premise, but Malick pulls it off.
With his new film, Knight of Cups, Malick jumps off the deep end into laughably lofty territory. He's the equivalent of an author who fills several pages with a description of a flower that catches the main character's eye. He's like the smarty-pants kid in the college lecture hall who keeps answering the professor's questions long after the class is over. Malick's self-indulgence is now at an all-time high. His new film even revolves around a similarly egocentric character.
Knight of Cups seems intriguing on the surface. Christian Bale stars as Rick, a depressed screenwriter haunted by his brother's death, seeking solace in the excesses of showbiz. However, Malick glosses over the "meat" of the story, revealing Rick's rocky past only through dreamy flashbacks and faintly audible dialogue. Malick also skimps on Rick's present. He commits the cardinal cinematic sin of telling rather than showing. Bale narrates the film in a hushed voice, constantly whispering questions like, "Who am I? How do I begin again?" Pretty trite.
Maybe it's trying to mirror its main character by sleepwalking through its story, but Knight of Cups ends up simply seeming empty — like the decadent world in which Rick drowns himself. Like him, it merely wallows there. Malick lingers on pools and palm trees, as if he's distracted by the setting while trying to transcend it. Unfortunately, he ends up losing sight of the film's star-studded cast, which includes Antonio Banderas, Cate Blanchett, Brian Dennehy and Natalie Portman. They all wander in and out without making significant contributions to the story.
Malick is notorious for cutting actors from his films — or at least significantly trimming their performances. Several scenes in this film feel as though they played out in a traditional way on set and then underwent some experimental art school editing courtesy of Malick. He essentially sucks the drama out of the film, fading in and out of what seem like important moments in the story. We often see characters yelling but don't get to hear about the source of their anger. The viewers are kept at a considerable distance; we're never allowed any intimacy with the characters. Therefore, they never come alive; all of them remain woefully one-dimensional.
Knight of Cups is ultimately a rather lazy and uninspired film. Malick seems to be losing focus. He's much like the man to whom the title refers. A character in a deck of tarot cards, the Knight of Cups is a person who's artistic but constantly bored. If only Malick realized that his audience needs stimulation too.