KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016, Terrence Malick)
“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake / Birds and snakes and aeroplanes”
– R.E.M. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”
And it does start with an earthquake (well, after a prologue where Christian Bale parties all night at the DTLA Standard with some Japanese girls), and there are plenty of shots of birds and airplanes. For Bale’s Rick, it might be the end of the world as he knows it, meaning he has to search for redemption at the spiritual apocalypse. The big question is, why should we give a shit if he finds it?
Malick’s early period (i.e. BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN) shows signs of his Transcendentalism, planting his soul-searching characters into narratives that took place at the edges of nature. Perhaps the finest few minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen involves Spacek and Sheen in the woods during BADLANDS’ first act. His middle period (i.e. THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD) still had some narrative centers, but allowed more for experimental storytelling that focused on the natural world and its proximity to whatever God Malick believes in. But for his later period, which started with THE TREE OF LIFE and was followed up by TO THE WONDER, Malick has gone full-force Transcendentalist: peering into the cosmos (space, dinosaurs, the earth’s creation, etc.) and finding some sort of oneness with the universe by drifting back to nature. This “later Malick” period also contains two features he shot back-to-back in 2012, one of which is finally out (KNIGHT OF CUPS) and the other (WEIGHTLESS) which is probably still in the editing room. (Both star Bale, Blanchett, and Portman). And by now, this style is not only tiresome, it’s becoming redundant and shruggable.
I’m fine with endless voiceover — it works beautifully in THE THIN RED LINE (one of a handful of movies I’d take to a desert island; such a gorgeous masterpiece I saw it four times upon its release just so I could spend at least 10 hours in a dark theater letting it wash over me) — and I’m even okay with showing the emotional stages of a relationship through physical movement within a frame (when characters keep evading each other like they’re playing some adult form of romantic tag, it likely symbolizes an inability to spiritually connect). I just don’t need to have all of that over and over. By TO THE WONDER it was already getting ridiculous, and now — within the constraints of this impermeable Bale character who never works but also has a steady stream of young, beautiful waifs — it’s spinning its wheels like a muddy truck.
This film is two hours long only because of its arbitrary adhesion to standardized modern cinema; it could easily have been 45 minutes or 5 hours and not really suffered. It just lets itself go and spins and spins and crawls inside its own philosophy until it just stops. Yes, Bale does steadily spend more and more time in nature (the first hour is mainly in houses, lofts, at parties, in Vegas, etc. and the second hour is in the ocean, on sand, on rocks, and in deserts) to lend credence to the Transcendentalism Malick is ever so forcefully preaching. But there isn’t any emotional crescendo. There isn’t a catharsis. It’s another beautifully shot (again by Lubezki) exercise, and a few moments shine brightly (the party sequence is a treat, and the modeling director who barks comments like “You’re a ’70s housewife who takes steroids and fucks girls during the day!” is hilarious), but good performances (Palmer, and perhaps Portman and Bentley) drown like Go-Pros in Walden Pond. And the music is simply dreadful. During post on THE TREE OF LIFE, Hans Zimmer said he’d never work with Malick again. That’s a huge loss — Hanan Townshend’s score here is miserable, reminding us just how important music is when your entire audio track is basically just music and voiceover. Never has a film needed Zimmer, or at least someone like Clint Mansell, so badly.