The newest film by auteur filmmaker Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups treads ground already familiar to the director’s oeuvre while standing apart in key ways. In what is one of the few times an A-list actor was used in the entirety of a Malick film without a significant portion of his performance getting left on the cutting room floor, Christian Bale evokes the main character of Rick through a series of episodic memories which see him constantly gazing every which way with an ever-present look on his face half-way between awe-struck and bored.
While Malick has always had a penchant for whispery, philosophic dialogue which takes itself too seriously, the voice-over work is key rather than excessive here. It truly functions in the place of actual dialogue, and while frequently heavy-handed, it is often insightful in terms of thematic as well as character development. And while Rick has more than enough sticky relationships to match the love-triangle of Malick’s previous film, To the Wonder, they don’t push their sense of self-importance past the breaking point.
Armed with extremely portable and durable GoPro cameras, a brief stop-animated sequence made from a torn fashion ad, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups looks at the world with new eyes. The camera swoops, swirls, and swoons from scene to scene – always in the moment right alongside Rick. So much about its visual elegance supports its themes – like cavernous empty rooms of surface beauty with nothing in them, or lavish parties void of meaningful interactions. Rick frequents such large, empty spaces, and they reflect how he seems to be feeling. Vast meditative shots of desert landscapes are juxtaposed by images of an advertising-afflicted world as a living hell à la Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi.
A careful attention to sound shines through in a delightful mix which brings out the whistling of the wind on the highway and the reverberations of a racquetball hitting a concrete wall in a big empty room. Hanan Townshend’s score is a delirious thing of wonder, reminiscent at times of other composers’ work while standing confidently on its own.
Lavish and self-assured, it is a beautiful film unafraid of its own reception. It emanates an understanding of cinema less about storytelling and more about relating parts of the human experience. It is certainly long (something which isn’t helped by a continual cutting back-and-forth through time), but leaves more than enough in the way of food for thought behind to justify its length. Any claims that Malick has receded too deep into his own consciousness in producing such supposedly aimless and almost non-narrative films are fended off by a very succinct line straight out of the film; “There’s no such thing as drama.”
1 hour, 58 minutes
Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman