Almost every filmmaker of note has reached a nadir in their career where they churn out something so bad that we begin to reassess all of the films they made beforehand with a newly formed sense of suspicion. Think Roman Polanski and The Ninth Gate or Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal or Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (or G.I. Jane or A Good Year for that matter) and you can understand the utter awfulness to which I am referring. Well, Terrence Malik has joined this elite group with his latest effort Knight of Cups, a turgid, listless, laughable and ultimately pointless exercise packaged as an enlightened, philosophical musing on life, relationships and god-knows-what. For a while now, Malik has been churning out these ambling, atmospheric, earnest dramas that are very much style over substance and with Knight of Cups he has taken it to the next level. You keep watching in anticipation that something – anything – is going to happen, but that something never comes and ultimately you are left feeling frustrated (if not downright angry) at having given this two hours of your time.
It is almost unimaginable that the man responsible for this is the very same Terrence Malik who gave us Badlands and The Thin Red Line. Furthermore, it defies any kind of logic that the likes of Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderos and Cate Blanchett would lend their considerable talents to something so completely soporific. The story, for want of a better word, is broken into a series of ‘chapters’, all of which revolve around Rick (Bale) a writer who says virtually nothing. Each episode focuses on his relationship with various people, mostly women, but his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley) are in the mix as well. There is very little dialogue – other than via voiceover – and most scenes end up as nothing more than a series of undeniably beautiful, but utterly vapid moments that, more often than not, involve people splashing about at the beach or in the pool, usually fully clothed. Blanchett, Portman, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Theresa Palmer and fellow Aussie Isabel Lucas take on the various women who flitter in and out of Rick’s orbit. Just by her presence alone, Portman makes her scenes bearable, but it is actually Palmer who shines brightest with the limited material with which she has to work.
If this were some kind of parody of the pretentious films that Malick now seems committed to making, it might actually work because it is so pompous that it is laughable. Bale has publicly stated that he had no idea what was going on with his character during filming and I doubt that watching the movie would make things any clearer for him. There is no reason whatsoever to invest any time in Rick, who has the personality of a cardboard box, lives in an apartment that is equally bland and spends his days doing absolutely nothing. It is hard to remember hating a character this much before. Self-absorbed, narcissistic characters can make for very interesting material – Bret Easton Ellis does it particularly well – but in this instance there is simply nothing to sustain audience interest in anything that is going on. It seems as though Malick is deliberately trying to alienate, maybe trying to see just how far he can go before he loses the support of the sycophants who fawn over his every move. Needless to say, there will still be those clueless few who will wax lyrical over this and deride anybody who dares to criticise, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Knight of Cups has any intellectual substance at all.
The biggest frustration here is that there are some characters and narrative threads that have the potential to deliver something interesting. But, not even the myriad blink-and-you-miss-them appearances from the likes of Jason Clarke, Joe Manganiello, Nick Offerman and Clifton Collins Jnr can provide sufficient interest to save Knight of Cups from the mire of mediocrity in which it is very firmly entrenched. Perhaps the only person to come away without damage to their reputation is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Birdman, Gravity) because the film does look ravishing at times. The images of the empty studio back lots are particularly evocative and Lubezki does a great job capturing Los Angeles in all its glitzy, vacuous glory. Malick has made some truly great films, but this is nothing more than an ill-conceived, poorly executed, indulgent, meandering mess.