Review: Knight of Cups – A beautiful, hollow snooze

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SOFT carpet, I feel you in mist; cloud. Reline yourself, that I may taste the fibres on her lips. Mother’s milk is from the land of honey and lime. Turn yourself from here; I have come to this place from lands unknown. Find your way from darkness to light. These days of heaven skirt the thin red line. In time, I will be among the living and the dead, like Brahms. You have no power over me. I have rejuvenated the Venus de Milo, like da Vinci could not. What is this love that loves us?

One of these sentences is a direct quote from Knight of Cups. Guess which one.*

It’s a facetious exercise – probably even childish – but one that might feel familiar to fans of acclaimed writer/director Terrence Malick. If To the Wonder marked the exact point that Malick disappeared up his own arse, then Knight of Cups is the confirmation of that moment. In something of a downward spiral since The New World (briefly allayed by The Tree of Life), Malick, much beloved by cineastes and ruin-porn enthusiasts everywhere, has slowly burrowed deeper and deeper into the collective gaze of a suffering rich, white man’s navel; this excruciating turd must, surely, be the nadir.

The director’s apparent obsession with the suffering artist – this time embodied by Christian Bale – is endlessly cloying and overwhelmed by the burden of melodrama rippling in the background. When snatches of interesting scenes are thrown on-frame, seemingly without thought, there is a threat, all too briefly, of something actually happening, yet the camera remains resolutely fixed on Bale’s melancholy face, his invasive narration landing with the dullest of thuds. These snippets of narration, beyond being sophomoric attempts at prose-poetry, are more an invitation to congratulate the director on making the same film four times in a row.

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Whether pseudo-philosophical or quasi-religious, the voiceovers are unwelcome and serve only to eternally re-contextualise the same basic tenet of Bale’s ‘character’, Rick: “I am sad, life is ennui. Father?” It’s distracting enough when Rick is narrating, but then other characters – most of whom don’t even seem to have names – start doing it too! The dialogue is less poetry and more soundbites for blockbuster trailers, with whispered vagaries taking on the inflated importance of a Keatsian elegy. It’s all nonsense that’s so decoupled from the atmosphere and ‘narrative’ of the film as a whole that it all smacks of irrelevance.

But, if you saw To the Wonder, which forms the natural companion to Knight of Cups as they were filmed back-to-back, then you won’t be too surprised to find the same material here. For instance, Olga Kurylenko’s spirited performance as a waifish naïf floundering around Paris in To the Wonder is refracted into about three or four women of the same ilk in Knight of Cups.

Imogen Poots, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer, fine actresses all, are reduced to this pathetic archetype, made to wave their arms through the air, imbuing the Ugly Not Arty pavements with their bullshit pixie magic; running their hands through swimming pools as if they’re astonished by the very concept of chlorine, and saying things like, “There’s somewhere we have to get to – I know it,” with a straight face.

The women who don’t receive this particular distinction may as well be made of glass, their delicate features preserved on a plinth lest they shatter, so frail and beautiful they are. None of these women are allowed a voice until they cross paths with Bale’s lackadaisical boor, and what they say with that voice is vague, metaphysical prattle. Portman and Cate Blanchett star, according to the poster. Combined, they have ten minutes of screentime.

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At least it’s all framed beautifully. Emmanuel Lubezki, in the middle of a cinematographic hot streak that shows no signs of abating, brings his astonishing visual prowess to the film, employing numerous lenses and his trademark use of natural lighting. Though less coherent than his incredible work on The Revenant or Gravity, Lubezki has the power to make a Hollywood party as beautiful and desolate as a salt flat. He is the true star of Knight of Cups.

All this sounds like I was enraged by the film, so infuriated by Malick’s vision that I was unable to see it through the froth in my mouth. Really, though, I was bored, and unbearably so. There are only so many shots of a rich white man ambling over nondescript landscapes that anyone should be able to bear. Whether it be rooftops, city streets, lonely peninsulas, rocky outcrops, you can rest assured that Christian Bale will wander, forlornly, along or across them, so much so that they all, simultaneously, become meaningless.

There is no real narrative to speak of, primarily because there was no script to speak of. This is part of Malick’s “torpedo” style, whereby actors would be told to wander onto camera to surprise the other actors and get some unexpected reactions. A fascinating approach, certainly, but the scenes lack the spontaneity it would suggest because the editing is so rife with quick, disorienting jump cuts. Though I imagine this was intended to reflect the turmoil in Rick’s head – and it does succeed to some extent – the result is that the audience has no awareness of time or space and are ultimately unable to empathise with Rick’s vaguely defined plight.

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When other characters show up to delineate or represent Rick’s problems – e.g. Antonio Banderas, Michael Wincott and Wes Bentley – these potentially interesting individuals are shunted aside for more focus on Rick’s meander. Bentley, as Rick’s brother, grieving for their mutual loss, is far more appealing, his anguish written in bold all over his face and gestures; his confrontations with Brian Dennehy’s father figure are explosive and, sadly, muted and glossed over by both editing and narration. Wincott’s is perhaps the most self-aware of Malick’s characters, as he flatly tells Rick, “You’re too far up your own ass.”

It’s no bad thing for audiences to be asking questions, especially from a director as obviously spiritually-inclined as Malick, but these stabs at lyricism and existential platitudes are ham-fisted. It’s self-indulgence on a masturbatory level, and no amount of tarot-tinged intertitles will convince me otherwise. The debauchery of the L.A. Hollywood circuit depicted in the background of many scenes might scream Wolf of Wall Street, but it’s really just another, slightly different reflection of how vapid and self-regarding the film is as a whole.

There’s nothing wrong with unconventionally-constructed movies. Malick’s own The Tree of Life, cut from the same sort of cloth as Knight of Cups, remains a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece of work, albeit rather meandering itself. His two subsequent films have taken the worst parts of The Tree of Life and amplified them to the nth degree. The Terrence Malick that made the striking and immediate Badlands has yet to return, and it probably won’t happen anytime soon. Knight of Cups is a gorgeous, hollow trinket that looks incredible but has absolutely nothing to say. Perhaps his next, untitled project will prove me a charlatan. Somehow, I doubt it.

*It was, “Find your way from darkness to light.” Two years of post-production.

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