By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015.