We’re almost there! The Anticipated is nearing the finish line on getting all caught back up, just before it falls behind once again. This week, it is finally time to take a look at Terrence Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups. Just like The Little Prince, this film has been circling for the past two years, as it too was meant to come out in 2015 (and actually did play in festivals), but was then pushed to 2016. This movie was one of the more highly anticipated films for me in 2015, so there is a lot of expectations here. Was Knight of Cups able to live up to its promise, or was I once again suckered into hoping something was better than it was? Let’s get a-moving and find out.
Knight of Cups (March 4th 2016)
How was it? Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
Let’s combine these two sections for this one. Because, ummmm, yeah, this film is not bad, but not good, either, and really I am just left wondering what I was expecting to begin with when I put it on this list. It is not as though I am the biggest Terrence Malick fan. I have long felt Days of Heaven and (albeit to a lesser extent) Tree of Life were both overrated. I mean, they’re stunningly beautiful, but they’re also not nearly the movies critics like to think they are.
Now, I understand where all the love comes from. Malick films are the perfect films for critics, as they are meticulously put together, beautiful, and very deep. These are movies you can analyze again and again to find more to talk about, because they are rather hard to parse out. If ever there was a director who appealed to the critic’s need to be the only one who understands a movie, that director is Terrence Malick. That he’s a genius filmmaker is made clear by watching any on his movies. But that doesn’t mean he’s always good at clearly expressing himself to his audience. I’m not saying a film has to be perfectly understood by the majority of its viewers in order to be good, but I do think at some level that if your film mostly goes over the head of most people, that is kind of a problem, no matter how much the people who say they get it like it. Part of me wonders if I am more attracted to the idea of a Malick film more than any specific one of his movies. I always believe his next film could be truly amazing, but am always disappointed with what I get. Sure, that’s as much a problem with me managing my expectations as it is with Malick–so really, the answer is no, Knight of Cups shouldn’t have been on my list in the first place and I should have known that–but that doesn’t change the fact that his films always feel like they are missing something, even when Malick is on his game.
Let’s be clear: Knight of Cups is not even close to Malick’s best game, but at the same time it isn’t a complete trainwreck, because his genius allows the film to retain a certain level of ambition and shine that most other films simply don’t have. Some may wonder if Malick’s decision to release this film and his other most recent project, To The Wonder, so close to one other after decades of waiting years or even decades between films so that he could fine tune them with the most meticulous comb ever may have hurt this film. It’s possible that the movie feels a little rushed, but that’s really not the film’s biggest problem, which is that this idea is just so tired. The idea of a man lost in the world, struggling to find himself through the women in his life has been done, and using multiple women to delve into the main character’s man pain just may be a played out concept at this point.
Malick tries his darndest to make it work anyhow by making this journey feel like a grand quest towards enlightenment. Every vignette in the movie (named after a Tarot card, except the last) has a distinct gravity, with everything treated seriously. Like many before him, Malick dives into the shallowness of Hollywood, and uses it as a reflection of the hollow nature of Rick’s (Christian Bale) soul. It may be a bit hit-or-miss, but it works. This is a film that constantly treads the line between pretension and proper seriousness, and admittedly it loses the battle against pretension most of the time, but that comes with the territory with Malick. He knows how to make everything feel important, and that’s compelling even when it shouldn’t be.
The problem is, it is all a trick. Layers of bullshit are just barely covered by the appearance of deep meaning. Rick is constantly trying to find himself in this movie, and each vignette of the film shows us how he is trying to atone for the mistakes of his past and present to forge a more meaningful future. If only the film knew what that meaningful future will turn out to be, other than philosophical waxings about living free and finding one’s place in the world. Instead, the film relies on repeating themes and motifs to try and show how Rick is changing with each experience, but it never does so in an effective manner. (Dear God, does Rick like going to the water with the women in his life over and over and over….) In the end, Rick does find his way, but it is hard to see how he has really changed, other than that now he’s giving a shit about things again.
Story complaints aside, damn this film is beautiful. Sure, it has the some of the same ‘unnecessary pretty beats’ problem that a film like The Revenant had, but that’s to be expected: both films were shot by the same person, and when you have greatest living cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shooting your movie, you let him go wild. Malick indulges both Lubezki and his own desire to linger far too long on sometimes unnecessary landscape shots, but the combination also leads to a unique feel, as the interactions between characters feel dynamic and lyrical in a way that most films simply don’t bother with. An ethereal score and mostly strong use of voiceover complete the vibe. I almost wonder if Malick would have preferred to remove the dialogue from this film completely, and make it completely voice over, but couldn’t make it work. Stretches of the film, especially the beginning, seem to forgo almost all dialogue, and it is kind of effective. This is mainly because Bale is not the only one narrating. Instead, a number of characters speak, and especially for the women, this serves as a way to offer insight and depth to these characters that otherwise simply couldn’t happen. In fact, part of why this film works at all is that it manages to offer up so many different perspectives on Rick’s experiences, which prevents the movie from going in circles. The constant voiceover should never have worked, and to be fair, it doesn’t work perfectly, but Malick is able to pull the VO together into quite the emotionally resonate experience. Ultimately, Knight of Cups, like many Malick films, is more like visual poetry than an actual movie, which allows it to do things other films couldn’t dream of trying to get away with.
So this film is definitely something I respect, and I am glad Terrence Malick is still getting to make whatever films he wants, considering nothing he has ever made has ever been particularly successful in the box office (most of them simply try to break even). But man, does it have problems. The pacing is glacial, as the film feels like six different movies happening all at once. There is a purposeful sense of hollowness throughout the film that is clearly meant to reflect the hollowness of Hollywood, which is kind of cool, but still leaves the film feeling rather empty. Bale is totally underutilized, as he basically gives the same set of expressions over and over again throughout the movie. The film does as good a job as it can giving depth to its female characters, but that doesn’t change the fact that they really only exist to service Rick’s journey (though shout out to Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman for acting the hell out of their material anyway, and making it work even when it shouldn’t have). After a while this grows extremely tiresome. Malick walks a bit too much of a tightrope act for too much of this film, and just can’t keep it up. This ultimately means you leave the film feeling like you have watched something profoundly deep and profoundly meaningless all at the same time, which is basically a fancy way of saying this film is bullshit. Impressive bullshit, well-crafted bullshit, emotionally resonant bullshit, but in the end, still bullshit. This was a simple movie that had ambition forcibly injected into it in order to try and make it mean more than it ever actually could. In a lot of ways it feels like a student film done by a genius director who wanted to see if ambition and genius and an all-star cast could turn it into a real movie. The answer to that is no. But impressive effort.
Isn’t this based on…?
The creative thoughts processes in Terrence Malick’s head–ie., an original idea, albeit one mined by many other stories before it.
Would I recommend it to others?
I mean, if you like Malick’s work, this film will definitely satisfy your need for more. It is something that can certainly be appreciated, even if it isn’t all that good. Otherwise, probably not, as this film doesn’t offer a lot to non-aficionados.
How would I rate it?
So, yeah, this film should have never been on this list, and I really need to stop trying to force films on the list just to see if it will make my opinion about a director change. Still I am glad I saw it, because watching ambitious failures is fun in its own way, so on the handy Anticipation Meter it receives 5 tarot cards out of 10. This film worked so much better than it honestly should have, but man, I wish Malick had figured out other idea to attempt.
For an actual rating: This film is an impressive mess, but still a mess. It is stunningly well-made, but there is just not much to it as a movie, no matter how much it tries to make you believe there is. But I did find it way more compelling than it had any right to be, and the theoretical genius of Terrence Malick was on full display. Combine that with Lubezki basically being an entire reason on his own to see a film, and it rates at 2.25 stars out of 4 (maybe I could be coaxed into a 2.5). Overall, this is, despite its flaws, somehow a decent movie made of contradictions. It is certainly bad for Malick, but bad Malick is still better than a good film from most filmmakers. Whether that is a shot at the state of cinema today or praise for Malick I will let you decide.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. It was good to finally get this film out of the way after it hung over things for the past two years. We are almost caught up. The question now is, will I be able to see THE BFG before the next slew of films on the list start coming out in September? You’ll just have to tune in next time to find out. Until then, just remember when to use voiceover. Don’t copy Terrence Malick, it will only cause you and everyone else so much pain.