“My life is like a Call of Duty campaign on easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.” Yes. That’s a real quote.
Terrence Malick’s newest film continues the downward trend started by 2012’s To The Wonder. The film follows Christian Bale playing a character that may or may not have been given a name. In fact, I can’t name a single character in the movie despite having just seen it as none are memorable or remotely developed. Bale appears to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter that gets sucked into the excesses of Tinseltown while dealing with some inner turmoil. What exactly is that turmoil? It seems to have to do with the loss of a younger brother and conflict with an authoritative father. If that sounds familiar, it is. This was the main thrust behind the significantly superior The Tree of Life (one of my favorite films) and there are glimpses, however brief, of the emotional intimacy found in that work. Unfortunately, these instances are too few and infrequent to carry the film.
Knight of Cups does break into new territory with its subject matter though. Malick’s films are always told using a childlike sense of wonder and imagination with many of the main characters being children. This style continues but is now applied to adult emotions, namely lust and hedonism, as well as seedier environments. Bale’s character moves through strip clubs, exorbitantly wealthy parties, and numerous partners in his descent and while this provides an intriguing contrast, it is never fully utilized. Any potential is squandered through the meandering of the narrative.
At its worst, Knight of Cups plays almost like self-parody. Every Malick trope is here. Vaguely spiritual whispered voice-overs? Scenes of frolicking on a beach? Majority of the film takes place at dusk with the sun behind the character’s head? Check, check, and check. All of these aspects have been successful at times in his previous movies, but the difference here is that there is no cohesion between the scenes. These films are becoming increasingly like grab bags of thoughts taken randomly from Terry’s bedside notebook and spoken by talented actors over beautiful imagery. Unfortunately, the stunning visuals and vague hints at depth are no longer enough to carry a film this unfocused. There are only so many scenes of a character reaching out of the window of a moving car to do hand jives while a pastor philosophizes that an audience can take.