In the pantheon of great filmmakers, Terrence Malick is amongst the very best. His streak of films between 1973 and 1998 (in the space of those twenty-five years, Malick only made three films, but each one of them towering masterpieces). He also did majestic work in The New World and made an excellent experimental coming-of-age story in The Tree of Life. However, he has started to lose it, or so it would seem. His follow-up to The Tree of Life was the messy and moody To the Wonder, which was its own beast with many flaws. However, his latest film, Knight of Cups, is almost unprecedented in Malick’s filmography, because it is the first time I ever watched a film by Malick and didn’t think “this is an absolute masterpiece” (Indeed, some parts of To the Wonder were wonderful) – and instead, Knight of Cups represents a low-point in the director’s filmography, mainly because of how flawed it is, right from the root.
Now first to disspell one possible rebuttal – that of the seemingly elite claiming that viewers who disliked this film simply “did not understand it” – I understood it perfectly well, as did many others. It is not a matter of the film being confusing, but the fact that this film is almost completely void of any narrative at all, and while having a free-form, stream-of-consciousness film can sometimes be absolutely mesmerizing, here it was just dull and a complete mess, and while I do often appreciate innovation and experimentation from some unique filmmakers, Malick has been in this business far too long to get away with making a film where it simply sails on its own experimental elitism rather than developing any coherent narrative or compelling story to drive it forward. The problem I have is that if this film was made by a debut filmmaker, he might have gotten away with it, because it shows promise, albeit amateur promise. When an acclaimed maestro like Malick makes a film like this, it is utterly heartwrenching, because we have seen Malick make some majestic films, and a film like Knight of Cups is one we expect from a recent film school graduate, not one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
The problem I felt in analyzing this film is that I very often judge it on compartmentalized criteria, and this film honestly misses at least half of the needed criteria, and that perhaps would have given it a much lower score. However, a film can’t exactly be judged in quite the same way as another film, and to grade this experimental film against films with clear narratives would not quite be very fair. Rather, the approach to this film was more as an experience. This film wasn’t all bad, and there were some vague positive elements throughout, but not enough that it can be considered the masterpiece Malick clearly wanted it to be. I will do my best to explore the positive side of Knight of Cups, even though that is quite a daunting task.
One great element of this film is that it draws you in. The story is completely absent, so it doens’t draw one in on a coherent narrative level, but rather it somewhat mesmerizes you with the soft and delicate music throughout, and the beautiful cinematography. The best part of this film was Emmanuel Lubezki’s precise and dreamy cinematography, which was wonderfully showy, and felt very surreal in a way. The editing was also well-done, and as I mentioned before, the music was well-chosen, and fit the film well. Perhaps what Malick was aiming for was exactly this – a dreamy and mesmerizing experience. If he was, then he certainly achieved it. It does not make it a good film, however, as even the most dreamy and surreal films need to have some form of saving grace that leaves the audience in awe. In the case of Knight of Cups, a clear narrative and a sense of direction would have worked. However, when Terrence Malick is attempting to follow the Christopher Guest and Mike Leigh method of making an unscripted “anything can happen” film, it doesn’t work, because even in the films of those two filmmakers, they have a tight grip on where they want their films to go. Malick honestly just seemed to be following Christian Bale with a camera.
Performance-wise, there is nothing compelling here, which is disappointing when you have some of the most talented people working today. Christian Bale has yet to win me over with his acting (I don’t think he’s a bad actor, he’s just not interesting to me for some reason), and in Knight of Cups, his entire performance seems to be him simply walking around looking confused and/or angry and/or depressed. The film also wastes some tremendous talents in Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, who are given thankless and useless roles. I suspect most of the actors in this film wanted to simply work with Terrence Malick, and it is obvious, as he uses some famous names as simple extras, such as Joe Manganiello, Jason Clarke and Ryan O’Neal – not in cameo roles (which would have been interesting), but honestly as background characters.
Knight of Cups is not a good film. In fact, it is a pretty mediocre film. It hurts me to say this, because I really wanted to love it. It is bland, features great actors in meaningless performances, and has some truly cliched writing (the parts of it that were written, at least). Honestly, it felt like a really long commercial. I kept expecting a narrator to come in near the end and try and convince us to buy some perfume or a watch or a car. It seems like Malick just really wanted to make a commercial, but it ended up being a two-hour long epic of meaningless walking around and very hushed, cliched voice-over narration, where there isn’t any story. It isn’t a good film, and it is only made tolerable by the great cinematography (which would have suited a perfume commercial much more than it suited this film). Many have called Knight of Cups Malick’s attempt at parodying himself. There have not been any truer words spoken.
NOTE #1: Malick has two more films coming out this year. Weightless and Voyage of Time. Hopefully both of these are far better.
NOTE #2: The poster to Knight of Cups is the best aspect of the film by far. I often wish a film’s poster was as good as the film. In this instance, I wish the film was as great as its poster.