Knight of Cups (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A Terrence Malick film floated in fragments

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Terrence Malick’s new film “Knight of Cups” is visually stunning and profoundly disorienting. We get lots of beautiful, mesmerizing moments as it is floated here and there along its visual stream-of-consciousness. We get fragmented glimpses into its detached, disillusioned hero and others revolving around him and his life. This amorphous approach could work as it did in Malick’s recent works, but, unlike them, the movie lacks a centrifugal life force to hold and support itself, and it ultimately feels muddled and superficial instead of being something transcendent it is trying to be.

Christian Bale plays Rick, a successful but disaffected Hollywood screenplay writer who has felt growing dissatisfaction with his life. Especially after an incident which suddenly happens on one day, he comes to reflect more on his life, and the movie accordingly listens to his inner thoughts as he continues to muse on how he has been lost during all those years in Hollywood – and how he can regain any sense of purpose for his life.

As his mind randomly wanders around its spacetime, we get to know a bit about several people in his life. We meet his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy), and we observe how Joseph has been estranged from his sons, though we can only speculate about what exactly happened between them. We hear about the suicide of Rick’s other brother, but the details of that sad incident are never mentioned or discussed, except that Barry still seems to be angry about his father for that.

In case of his professional career, Rick keeps getting lucrative offers as usual, but he is not so interested. He lives in a slick modern apartment, but, as amusingly pointed out during one comic scene, his residence feels hollow and empty as if it reflected his current state of mind. He keeps getting mired in your average hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle, but he does not get much pleasure or excitement from that, and one sequence shows him simply meandering around others at a big mansion party held by Tonio (Antonio Banderas), a rich playboy guy who will keep partying as much as his money can afford.

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In the meantime, a number of women in his life fleet by the screen. There are some moments involved with his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), and then there are the flashback scenes which glimpse how his affair with a married woman named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) was bitterly terminated. We also meet Della (Imogen Poots), a spirited woman with whom Rick hangs around for a while; Helen (Freida Pinto), a graceful model who soothes Rick during their incidental encounter; Karen (Teresa Palmer), a plucky stripper whom Rick comes across in Las Vegas; and Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who gives Rick a small help later in the movie.

All these things mentioned above and many other things in the film keep getting shuffled like a deck of cards. As a matter of fact, there is a scene in which a fortuneteller tells Rick’s fortunes through her tarot cards. While the title of the movie comes from one of tarot cards, some other tarot cards function as the chapters of the film, respectively reflecting what is going to be presented in each chapter.

Christian and mythic elements are freely mixed together in the film, as directly reflected by not only tarot cards but also the quotes from the 1678 Christian allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the passage “Hymn of the Pearl” from the Acts of Thomas. The latter is the story about a boy who was sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent but became seduced and then lost instead while forgetting his identity and family, and you can easily draw the parallels between Rick and the boy who was “the son of the king of kings”.

While this aspect is surely intriguing, but the movie failed to engage me on the level of human interest, and that is rather surprising, considering how deeply humane many of Malick’s films are. The characters in his best films such as “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Tree of Life” (2011) may be no more than archetypes, but they are the emotional anchors to hold our care and interest. Even when it aims high with its vast canvass of space-time, “The Tree of Life” is always a small, intimate family drama at its meditative heart, and its hero’s parents played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain come to us as vivid characters even when they represent or symbolize its philosophical/religious/spiritual ideas.

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I heard that Malick had his performers play their characters without many details during the shooting of his film, and I can only admire how they manage to fill blanks to some degrees through their screen presences. Looking more subdued and less intense than usual, Bale did a good job of internalizing his character’s emptiness, but his character is far less compelling compared to the equally disinterested writer hero of Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (2013), which did a better job than “Knight of Cups” in many aspects. While those beautiful actresses passing by Bale have less things to do, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, and Antonio Banderas manage to leave more impression on us, and we also get the brief appearances by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ryan O’Neal, Cherry Jones, Nick Offerman, Joe Manganiello, Clifton Collins Jr., Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, and Ben Kingsley, who provides a small voice performance for the film.

Although I felt impatient and dissatisfied during my viewing, “Knight of Cups” is not a complete failure. Emmanuel Lubezki, a great cinematographer who previously collaborated with Malick in “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” (2012) and recently won his third consecutive Oscar for “The Revenant” (2015), provides sublime materials for its visual collage of nature, civilization, and human memory. I also like the soundtrack which consists of the score by Hanan Townshend and many different preexisting works including Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” and Edvard Greig’s “Peer Gynt”. The movie feels redundant and repetitive especially during its parts reminiscent of Malick’s previous works, but it is nice to see him becoming more prolific than before anyway (remember his 20-year-hiatus between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” (1998)?), and I hope he will bring something more satisfying in his upcoming film which will probably be released around this year.

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