Mark Reviews Movies

Knight of Cups


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Cherry Jones, Isabel Lucas

MPAA Rating: R (for some nudity, sexuality and language)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 3/4/16 (limited); 3/11/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 10, 2016

Since returning from his 20-year hiatus from filmmaking, Terrence Malick has not shied away from making films that eschew the tenets of traditional narrative in favor of frank yet enigmatic explorations of philosophy and spirituality. They're probing, questioning films without clear answers. It's the exploration itself that counts, as Malick seems to be letting us in on his own process of grappling with worldly and spiritual matters. Knight of Cups features Malick at his most worldly in a while, which isn't a problem, yet it also shows the filmmaker at his most materialistic, which is one.

On a superficial level, the movie is yet another in the endless stream of movies about the soulless nature of Hollywood and the way it turns people into automatons moving from one party, one job, one sexual partner, and one more meaningless experience to the next. In other words, it's nothing new, but as is his modern custom, Malick isn't interested in the surface level of story or characters.

Whatever semblance of a story might be here follows Rick (Christian Bale), the movie's central figure (It seems generous to call him a "character," since he really is just a stand-in for a general state of being). As he goes through the motions of success, he constantly finds himself dissatisfied with his life of cavorting with the rich and famous, living in a swanky modern apartment, receiving an envelope filled with cash to write the screenplay for a movie star, and having flings with a series of beautiful women.

The point is that none of these "things" has fulfilled him in any meaningful way (Yes, every woman here is seen as just another one of those "things"). Something or some things of a more vital nature are missing from his life.

Malick has the answers this time, and maybe that's why the movie feels a little too neat ("neat" by Malick's standards, of course). Perhaps the way he frames those answers in the movie's epilogue is why the movie ultimately feels a little hypocritical (Happiness is just a mansion with a tennis court away). Maybe there's a distancing effect to the presentation of these big ideas within the context of the life of this particular character. In that last respect, it almost feels as if Rick's ennui is just an extension of being spoiled by success. It never seems to come from a place of genuine longing for Answers. It's just another way for him to spend his time while he's out and about living his life of privilege.

The movie's parts never fall into place. The result is that its deeper concerns come across more as rambling than musing.

Rick does, indeed, have a swell job and a nice L.A. apartment, which is mildly disheveled when an earthquake and its aftershocks hit. That's probably a metaphor, but in the story, it's a moment of vague realization that upturns his cozy life. What we know is that Rick is unhappy, despite attending various shindigs at hotspots like a rooftop pool and a massive estate.

The movie repeats this theme over and over again. It offers a few potential reasons—such as his shaky relationships with his uncaring father (Brian Dennehy) and his quick-to-anger brother (Wes Bentley)—and shows a lot of the symptoms. Most of those have to do with the way he is unable to connect with women he romances throughout the movie.

There are five failed relationships with women (six, if one counts his inability to be a good son to his mother—or vice versa—played by Cherry Jones), who are played by Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, and Natalie Portman. The sixth romantic partner, who turns out to be Rick's ideal mate, is played by Isabel Lucas as a woman whose voice is never heard but who does wade around naked in a pool (She is, essentially, an object for him to obtain—a reward for figuring out what he wants from life). The other women at least get to expound via narration why the couplings fail: a marriage in which the partners have different goals (Blanchett's character), women who just want a fling (Pinto and Palmer's), a young free spirit who doesn't really know what she wants (Poots'), and an extramarital affair that ends with a melodramatic revelation (Portman's).

Rick is mostly silent onscreen. Malick edits dialogue scenes in such a way that characters respond to Rick's bypassed, unheard statements or questions to them. We have the usual bouts of voice-over from the central figure, asking questions about his inability to connect in monotone while Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki offer flashy scenes of Hollywood excess. The movie proceeds to repeat itself, loosely tied together by chapters named after figures on tarot cards: a new party, a new woman, a moment of Rick seeing a happy parent-and-child bond, an occasional drive or trip to the desert, another party, a scene of his brother and/or father getting angry, another woman.

The repetitive nature of the story isn't the problem, since, again, Malick doesn't care about such things. It's the lack of any real, meaningful insight within the beats of the shell of the plot that keep Knight of Cups at a distance.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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