Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Natalie Portman, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer

At this stage of the game complaining that Terrence Malick’s films are opaque and mystical is like complaining that Michael Bay’s are full of explosions – it demonstrates a puzzling willful ignorance of the filmmaker’s most fundamental penchants, coupled with a refusal to judge the work by its own lights. Don’t order the fish and then complain that you’re allergic, is what I’m saying.

So, yes, Malick’s latest meditation, Knight Of Cups, is an obtuse and symbol-heavy tone poem about our search for grace in a facile and chaotic universe. That is what you’ve signed on for.

This time around Malick has all but eschewed conventional narrative and character, delivering a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness look at the life of a Hollywood screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), who is suffering an existential crisis. His relationships with his father (Brian Dennehy) and self-destructive younger brother (Wes Bentley) are strained following the suicide of yet another brother. His work life is grotesque and unfulfilling, and he spends his days not engaging creatively, but contending with venal agents and writers’ room power plays. He tries to find solace in romance, hooking up with and discarding one woman after another, but nothing helps.

All this is relayed to us in a hallucinatory, jumbled rush of imagery and voice over. Dialogue is mostly obscured or partially heard, and the film’s time frame is anybody’s guess, but it seems to cover a period of years – Rick partners up with a doctor (Cate Blanchett), an actor (Imogen Poots), a model (Freida Pinto), a stripper (Teresa Palmer) and more over the course of the film, but what is happening “now” and what is flashback is difficult to parse.

But it works, if you let it and you’re willing to open yourself to the experience, because what Malick is talking about here is the perpetual problem of never being able to appreciate the here and now – the dissatisfaction that seems to stalk modern life. Rick is unhappy because he can never stop wondering what else he could have. Each lover, no matter how beautiful, could be getting in the way of another, more perfect partner. Each job he takes could prevent him from a more lucrative one. There’s a bravura Hollywood party sequence – and one where a lot of celebrities, from Joe Lo Truglio to Fabio of all people, got to tick “be in a Terence Malick film” off their bucket lists – in which a huge host of beautiful people stand around in a stunningly gorgeous mansion, talking about the most inane shit, completely blind to the sheer beauty of their surroundings. It’s the film in a nutshell.

Our hero Rick, of course, doesn’t cotton to this essential problem for some time, instead looking for quick fixes, systems of belief that, for all their well meaning ephemera, only serve to separate us from the essential, mindful truth that Malick esteems. At one point Rick gets a Tarot reading in a storefront fortune teller’s; at another he takes (bad) advice from Antonio Banderas’s cheerfully lecherous party guest; at yet another Michael Wincott’s saturnine agent sings the praises of wealth as the ultimate life goal. It’s all useless embroidering, though – the spirit heals, Malick says, by remaining rooted in the now.

Amusingly, the film is divided into chapters named for Tarot card headings – the same kind of obfuscating occultism that the film seems leery of. It’s as though Malick is warning us not to take his cinematic musings too seriously either – after all, his films are still only a set of symbols and grammar used to interpret reality; they are not reality itself.

Knight Of Cups will divide audiences, and perhaps that’s only proper; it asks much of its audience and, really, doesn’t promise any concrete answers for the effort, either. Still it’s a gorgeous, smart, challenging film that represents another milestone in the career of a masterful auteur.

TRAVIS JOHNSON


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