Take a Drink: for enigmatic voiceover
Take a Drink: for each relationship
Take a Drink: for each tarot card title
Take a Drink: for escape into debauchery
Do a Shot: for a return to grace
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
A funny thing happened to Terrence Malick in the last decade… people went from anticipating the arrival of one of his decade in the making masterpieces to wishing he went back to taking a few years longer making them. Nobody knew that the debut of his utter masterpiece The Tree of Life was heralding a new era in his career- cranking out a new movie every year or two that perhaps only could be made sense of by himself.
Certainly not Ben Affleck.
Knight of Cups abandons Malick’s typical elegies of nature for a nearly entirely metropolitan Los Angeles-set tale of an actor (Christian Bale) losing and finding his soul in a soulless but superficially beautiful place and the series of very different, very beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, & Isabel Lucas) who mark signposts along this journey.
Knight of Cups plays like a Birdman companion piece in more ways than one. Not only does it feature a jaded actor trying to navigate his ways through the inanities and excesses of Tinseltown, but it features stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, a DP whose incredibly wide, incredibly close low angle-obsessed shooting style is becoming arthouse short-hand for “Thanks for the Oscar!”.
Chivo’s almost getting bored with these.
What folks forget is Lubezki forged that style with Malick, shooting his last five/six films, depending on whether you consider Malick’s Tree of Life spinoff Voyage of Time a separate film. The other, still largely effective, aspects of a style that has become personally Malick’s to an almost parodic extent are also present- that cinematography, the soaring classical music (now tempered by classic rock cuts), the whispery philosophical voiceover- but the subject matter of his last three are making it clear that Malick’s making films for himself now.
The plots feel opaque just because they feel so personal, but his thesis is clear, with the Pilgrim’s Progress opening and constantly contextualizing both Bale and presumably a young Malick’s journeys from the empty excesses of the World to a focus on the release of self and a trust in something Higher. His abusive father, played by Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life and Brian Dennehy here and a younger brother who committed suicide (Wes Bentley here) both connect these films together and overtly to Malick’s own experiences.
Even if you’re less than interested in the deep self analysis of one of our great filmmakers, there’s appreciation to be had in the imagery and the way Malick portrays the inherent absurdity of the L.A. playground, inhabited by actors playing versions of themselves, most notably Antonio Banderas. People are stupid and self interested no matter how much time and money they have to contemplate the “deeper things”. Everybody’s searching, yes, but some are content to take comfort in vapidity and platitudes and go back to salving over the real questions with the host of temporary pleasures an obscene amount of money can easily buy.
Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy a hell of a lot of things that make you happy.
Your mileage is going to vary with this approach. Some critics have compared it to the Sean Penn portions of The Tree of Life stretched out to the feature length- probably not at all inaccurately. I think this is quite literally the film Penn thought he was starring in, it’s just Malick wasn’t ready to examine that portion of his life yet.
That stinks for the actors who put in a feature’s worth of work and seen only a few minutes of footage result, but that’s par for the course when working with Malick (just ask Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke, all of whom were cut completely from The Thin Red Line). However, what Malick doesn’t seem to realize when rifling through the rolodex (or, quite possibly, care) is that the more actors he stuffs in here, the less essential any of the acting feels. Unsurprisingly, Blanchett comes off best, but Bale’s lead is just a cipher, as are most of the rest of the cast. This is almost certainly on purpose considering the subject matter, but still.
Strangely, here Malick flirts pretty heavily with cliche and genre. What’s with Bale’s flight with the wild stripper and her heart of gold? I just can’t quite conceive of that being autobiographical. Ditto the super nonchalant home invasion, which Bale just kind of watches happen and which doesn’t seem to impact any of the rest of the plot. I appreciate what he’s going for overall, but it seems to miss the broader, universal mark, as did his last, To the Wonder. It’s probably time for a change of pace, and hopefully Weightless is it.
Are you a Malick fan? Then you need to watch this. Do you hate Malick and his arthouse impulses? Avoid like the plague.