For two decades Terrence Malick was the disappeared genius, a secretive artist hidden out of sight. After two astonishing films in the 70’s, his long overdue return with The Thin Red Line in 1998 proved worth the wait. Since then, he’s gradually ramped up production. Perhaps that was a mistake as the strain is starting to show. After the mediocre To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups proves only a marginal improvement. A beautiful film to look at, blessed with Malick’s usual superb use of music, it’s also a frustratingly empty endeavour.
Christian Bale joins the pantheon of high profile Malick leading men as Rick, a successful comedy screenwriter grappling with a growing fear that he’s misspent his life. He lives in decadent luxury complete with catalogue cars, plush apartments and a bevy of attractive women at every turn. And yet a hole has appeared that can’t be ignored. His marriage to wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) has gone, and his family is in turmoil with one brother (Wes Bentley) angry and wayward and another dead, presumably suicide.
This being a Malick picture, the details of Rick’s life do not unfold in conventional fashion. Instead, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera floats around watching him stagger through crises. Voiceover provides the only verbal means to convey information, switching between principal characters and the never seen Ben Kingsley. Characters all lament poor choices and dead ends. Rick wonders where it all went wrong. How did he spend thirty years as a man he never wanted to be?
Impeccable camerawork harks back to Malick favourites from years gone by. Rick in the desert, along the beach and across the slick, glassy Los Angeles skyline is often left to wander into the distance while nature whips up around him. It makes for a great slideshow and less impressive film. There are new additions to the toolbox, notably several stunning scenes driving across the highways and through the tunnels of Los Angeles. Clinically sleazy neon parties also reach out providing the few moments that demand attention.
Otherwise, Bale is left to drag his moping screenwriter about like a dead weight. The contrasting imagery of starkly beautiful nature and cool and immoral LA hits like a thump on the head, as do the parallels between water and rebirth and the literal shaking of his world with an earthquake. The succession of gorgeous women circling him also prove vaguely unsettling. Only Blanchett is given the glimmer of a character as others including Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots and Frieda Pinto are completely wasted. In fact, Knight of Cups is rammed full of pointlessly distracting cameos, Malick once again hiring a top drawer cast only to ignore most of them.
If Knight of Cups were to be stripped of shots of people swimming and walking across sand, and Bale flirting, the film would lose half its running time. From a man capable of so much there should be more. It’s not the lack of answers that prove so troubling. It’s the banality of the questions posed.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Isabel Lucas, Christian Bale, Imogen Poots
Runtime: 118 min