Skip to main content

We're not leading the lives we are meant for... we're meant for something else.

Knight of Cups
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Even a Terrence Malick apologist has to draw a line somewhere, and it seems the director has finally succumbed to inglorious self-parody. The warning signs were there with To the Wonder, but it’s the repetition of the same brush strokes and signatures to the point of banality that sadly seals the deal in Knight of Cups.


It doesn’t help that Christian Bale is an essentially unsympathetic protagonist. He’s a natural for a meaty part, but emphatically not favoured by wistful contemplation and half-murmured regrets. Malick’s fractured constructions are ever-intentional, but they reach breaking point here, as Bale’s Hollywood writer Rick charts a course of reflection based on a misspent life of profligate relationships.


There’s a loose structure based on a tarot reading (Rick’s significator is the Knight of Cups), but seemingly little actual rigour to the passage through titled sequences based on The Hanged Man, The Hermit, Judgement etc. So too, his array of Hollywood lovelies (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots) pass by with little impact. We meet Rick’s brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy; suggestive of the daddy issues in The Tree of Life), but here likewise the whole is so lightweight, so set on the meditative feathery pillow, that it blows away.


Maybe that’s Malick’s intent, but it translates as pure parody. Knowing that there was no script only adds to this; you can virtually see the director telling Bale “Emote against that tree, will you, Christian, and we’ll add some vague musing on the voiceover later”. Stir and repeat. Whatever Malick’s grand designs (Ben Kingsley’s narrator introduces the film, quoting Pilgrim’s Progress, and telling of the prince who forgot who he was; Rick spent “all those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know”), unfurling protracted tone poems of the restless soul, the wilful lack of form fails to pass muster this time, in what becomes a two-hour slog. It isn’t transportive, merely laboured.


The snatches of pseud-poetic rambling are hit-and-miss (“Because I stumble down this road like a drunk, that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one”; “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start to make sense. Then you find you’re just as lost as you were before”; “I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never come together”; “So much love inside us, that never gets out”), cumulatively leaving one convinced that, if you attempt to wax lyrical long enough, something vaguely coherent will come out amid the dross.


There are a few high points, however. The use of Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus as the main theme very nearly forgives the picture its profuse transgressions, lending the internal fumblings occasional weight and emotional substance they otherwise lack; mournful melancholy at a wasted life.


The imagery, courtesy of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki (three Oscars on the trot can’t be wrong, can they?), is extraordinarily beautiful, if you can get past Malick’s penchant for low angle, handheld, fish-eyed haziness. At one point there’s even a glimmer of something enticing as writer Peter Matthiessen (At Play in the Fields of the Lord) offers some nuggets of zen (“If you’re in a cave eating nettles, it’s not so difficult to keep your life simple”); it struck me that spending 90 minutes with this guy, rather than 90 seconds, and whatever he had to say, would be far more rewarding than anything Malick could come up with, something that might tend towards My Dinner with Andre levels of inspired rumination.


As ever, throngs of performers line up to appear in a Malick joint, most of whom barely register. Antonio Banderas comes on like the compere of a Fellini movie, introducing Rick to a party full of young beauties (“There are no principles, just circumstances”) and you may spy the likes of Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Dane DeHaan, Ryan O’Neal, Joe Manganiello, and Michael Wincott. Or you may not.


Fellini’s an appropriate reference point, as more than once I was put in mind of Peter Sellers’ parody of the director in After the Fox: “What are we running from?” asks Victor Mature’s Tony Powell. Sellers’ master criminal the Fox, masquerading as a movie director, replies ‘From yourselves. Uh, you get the symbolic meaning? Aah! No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!’ ‘Aah! Beautiful!’ exclaims buffoonish Tony. Doubtless Bale made similar exclamations regarding the weight and wisdom of Malick during the course of Knight of Cups (and their next, Weightless, a title just itching for brickbats).



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.