I’m willing to cut filmmaker Terrence Malick some slack. I was never particularly drawn to the early art house films for which he is best known (Days Of Heaven; Badlands), but I thought his 2005 epic, The New World, was the best movie of the first decade of this century. An impressionistic and completely immersive plunge into the first interactions between American natives and European colonists ca. 1600, it dispensed with dialogue and narrative in ways that made total sense in a story about two cultures without language or any sort of cultural reference in common. The strangeness and unease of their struggles to comprehend each other created the drama.
Since then, Malick has delivered three more films, each one less burdened by either dialogue or narrative than the last, and none of them with an iota of the power of The New World. Case in point: Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups. Revolving around its protagonist (literally, with plenty of hand-held camera work), a disaffected Hollywood screenwriter searching for the meaning of life, it’s full of light, color, expressionistic images, snippets of disconnected voice-over observations, flashes of hedonistic excess, and swelling orchestral music.
But for all the visual movement, Malick’s storytelling is inert. The techniques that worked so well in The New World don’t translate to a modern setting; the characters speak the same language, but there’s almost no verbal communication between them onscreen. And without the traditional clues of dialogue or the accumulation of narrative details, the viewer can’t work up any sense of emotional engagement with the characters. We have no idea who these people are, and we’re given no reason to care.
At the center of it all is screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale), who might be in emotional free fall, if there was any evidence at all that he had emotions. He occupies a cold, spare glass apartment overlooking the beach, and while he never seems to actually work, he takes meetings at the studio—meaning he’s shown wandering dazedly around the back lot while other guys in suits talk over and around him. He has father issues (all of Malick’s male characters have father issues), and an extant father (Brian Dennehy) who pops up in the margins now and then, and a brother (Wes Bentley). But as for Rick himself, there’s no there there: he’s the ultimate empty vessel.
The only time he seems to perk up is at the orgiastic Hollywood parties he regularly attends, where he laughs and smiles and crawls around drunkenly on all fours. He pairs up with a succession of women—a pink-haired free spirit (Imogen Poots), a sultry model (Freida Pinto), an exuberant pole-dancer (Teresa Palmer), and a woman who may be the love of his life (Natalie Portman), except that she’s married to someone else. Most of them end up dancing along the beach at the water’s edge in filmy, diaphanous gowns.
In the absence of narrative, Malick attempts to use the symbolism of Tarot cards to create story. (The suit of Cups, like Hearts, suggests love and pleasure; the Knight of each suit is a young man.) These are used as “chapter” headings: the “Judgment” card cues the appearance of his disapproving ex-wife (Cate Blanchett); the “Death” card retains its symbolism as the signal of rebirth. Meanwhile, voices on the soundtrack read from Pilgrim’s Progress, and drone on about knights and pilgrims and quests. Fragments of stunning music from the likes of Debussy, Beethoven, Gorecki, and Pärt are seeded in to create an atmosphere of profundity that the movie does not earn.
Understanding the story in symbolic terms is not enough; we need to feel invested in somebody—anybody—onscreen. Otherwise, what’s the point? Rick’s search for self-discovery is uninvolving; Bale is encouraged to wander through shots at such a zombie-like remove, we doubt there’s any self to discover. And he seems to be searching for meaning in all the wrong places—orgies, strip clubs, Hollywood mansions, Las Vegas.
It’s not that Malick’s themes of emptiness and disconnect are too obscure. He just doesn’t make them interesting.
KNIGHT OF CUPS
* (out of four)
With Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, and Freida Pinto. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. A Broad Green release. Rated R. 118 minutes.