You either vibe with Terrence Malick or you don’t. I don’t get people who claim to love The Tree of Life but then straight up slam To the Wonder or Knight of Cups. Sure, they work to varying degrees of success but the filmmaking, ambition and voice is so consistent that I struggle to split them up and try and judge them on their own merits. Malick does what he does. Knight of Cups is another Terrence Malick movie and comes with everything you’d expect from that billing. If you respond to his work in a positive way, you’ll find a lot to love.
It’s very similar in scale to To the Wonder. I like that Malick has skipped the huge multi-year gaps between films in favour or producing more output on more intimate canvases. His recent films follow only a handful or characters anchored by one individual. In Knight of Cups that character is played by Christian Bale. Through him we navigate a world of celebrity LA. Excess and glamour abound and Malick achieves exactly what The Great Beauty recently tried but didn’t quite accomplish; to present us with a vision of modern decadence that feels like a flash-bulb purgatory.
Performances tend to get lost or overlooked in Malick’s movies. Nobody talks about Affleck or Bardem’s excellent work in To the Wonder do they? Like those actors in that movie, Bale is fantastic here. Clearly thriving from performing in the Church of Malick, he lets himself be moulded and led wherever the material and the process takes him. Same goes for all the actors. Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer (especially) and Isabel Lucas all float in and out of the film and leave a very potent smear that pushes Bale’s character forward in some way or makes us understand him more deeply.
As with any entry in Malick’s canon the film really flies and reaches heights in the details and visuals. Uninterested in standard coverage, Malick shoots entire conversations almost free of talking heads. At one point while Bale shares an exchange, we are looking at the creased shirt covering his chest. Malick’s camera, wielded by the great Chivo, wanders and finds its own points of interest. The great pleasure of Malick’s cinema is looking where he wants to look and finding meaning where he clearly sees it. Knight of Cups is the first of Malick’s films to feature mixed media and the visuals often regress into grubby digital imagery that somehow feel revelatory and punctual to the otherwise flawless visual sheen. Malick is experimenting!
While not one of my favourite filmmakers, Malick is someone I have incredible respect for and am in genuine awe of. He is a filmmaker so singular, so gifted in creating spiritual images and conveying meaning through the cinematic medium that he is, for all intents and purposes, a true original. I feel that way about most of his films. Even though they don’t sky-rocket into my favourites, they are always memorable and transcendent experiences. In the wrong hands, I find this aesthetic tiresome and pretentious. People who try to imitate him are just trying to channel Malick whereas Malick is channeling something only he is privvy to. We all know what a Malick movie looks and sounds like now. In fact that might be the problem for some people. Not so long ago, Malick movies were an event and every film felt like a step forward for him, like uncharted territory. Now he’s working at a more regular pace maybe some viewers find the aesthetic too predictable and tiresome. I don’t feel that way. In my eyes, every Terrence Malick movie is a gift.