It's distressing to have to announce this, but Terrence Malick's transformation, from the film world's most intriguing living legend to its most conspicuous coaster, is now complete. Knight of Cups seals the deal.
Once upon a time, when the former philosophy prof-turned-art-film auteur let twenty years go by between his second feature release (Days of Heaven, 1978) and his third (1998's The Thin Red Line), the merest whisper of a new Malick project was enough to send his larger-than-cultish following into fits of anticipation. Malick was the thinking person's Ridley Scott, Middle America's answer to Stanley Kubrick, and the anti-Steven-Spielberg, rolled into one.
From Badlands forward, he carefully scattered his films — downbeat fables of ordinary people achieving their cloudy destinies amidst lustrous scene-setting — like rare pearls of compassion. That it took him so long to select his properties and produce his movies only burnished his reputation as a wise man. A Malick was worth waiting for. The sighs that filled auditoriums in the opening moments of The New World (2005) heralded a genius with an all-embracing empathy for the underdog — a champion of tenacious humanism, a prophet for audiences who normally shunned prophets.
With The Tree of Life (2011), however, a schism opened up. What many latecomers to the party considered an apotheosis — starring Brad Pitt, no less — seemed to some longtime Malick fans pretentious and forced. His once-vaunted excursions suddenly provoked skepticism. The omnipresent visual cues multiplied, to the point at which they swamped the slender narrative — which seemed, on close inspection, to be a rehash of "stolen moments" from before. Then came To the Wonder in 2012, the quickest-arriving Malick by far. The filmmaker's writing problems multiplied and his trademark gestures began to look rote. Grumpy critics noted that if the director had released a new movie every two years instead of every ten, we would have tired of his shenanigans long ago.
Knight of Cups, Malick's latest, is long on shenanigans. In fact, thirty minutes into it, the effect is that of a never-ending stare upward into the trees — in this case the palms of Los Angeles, where Rick (Christian Bale), a disaffected movie-biz man about town, is dejectedly surveying the wreckage of his life via flashbacks and voiceovers. Ninety percent of the dialogue in Knight of Cups is in voiceover. And establishing shots outnumber expository sequences two to one. The two previous movies' skimpy narratives slim down almost to the vanishing point. Wait, it gets worse.
In between meeting with horrid entertainment execs and staring out the window, Rick absent-mindedly runs through his collection of ex-wives and girlfriends, all of whom have great bodies. This depresses him but provokes only boredom in us. No one feels sorry for handsome, rich guys who go to Hollywood and Las Vegas parties and have sex with babes. Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett stand out among the numerous femmes, and Portman's scenes at the beach house do contain the germ of a promising drama, but Malick does not seem interested.
In his provocative filmed essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, critic Thom Andersen chides "low-tourist outsider" filmmakers like Woody Allen for getting Andersen's hometown wrong in their movies. Sad to say, Rick's morose tour of the Southland puts Malick — who ironically made his name capturing the mystique of quintessential American locations — firmly in the tourist bag. When Rick ends up at the Los Angeles River (arrgghhh!), it would actually have been a relief to see giant ants come out of their holes in the concrete river bank, à la Them!, and devour Christian Bale. Such are our frustrations.
We can admire Malick's fascination with images and montage, but the net impression of Knight of Cups is of one long TV commercial for Apple, or maybe a sensational new fragrance, take your pick. All the tendencies we've been worrying about in Malick's career have come terribly true. He's a hopeless coaster. Maybe he should go back to costumed period dramas, or abandon the spiritual subtexts altogether. Regardless, he should definitely seek writing help in his future projects, maybe try an adaptation. His cup is empty, and that's a shame.
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