Even at his most esoteric and adrift, it is impossible to entirely write off any new cinematic work from filmmaker Terrence Malick. The greatness of 1978's "Days of Heaven," 1998's "The Thin Red Line
," and 2005's "The New World" is reason enough to demand cinephiles pay attention to what he has to say, his ruminations on the beauty and ennui of life and death ricocheting off each picture-perfect image and philosophizing voiceover. Beginning with 2011's enormously ambitious, achingly uneven "The Tree of Life
" but more prominently manifesting itself in 2013's oftentimes laughably flowery "To the Wonder
," the 72-year-old Malick has seemingly lost his mojoor, perhaps he has simply squandered it as he has expedited his output, rushing a procession of projects into production without allowing for time to fully develop or think them through. Edging too closely and too often toward self-parody, "Knight of Cups" continues his recent preoccupation with emotionally stunted men who mope around while willowy female figures twirl and prance through his life. It's time for Malick to find a different angle.
For someone whose abilities to talk and emote are severely lacking, Rick (Christian Bale) sure does attract a lot of attractive young women. A Hollywood screenwriter never seen at a computer, he moves from one lover to the next while spending each day acting as mostly silent spectator to the city he calls home. There's Della (Imogen Poots), who likes to walk on her heels and ultimately tells Rick, "You don't want love, you want a love experience." There's Helen (Freida Pinto), a model who no longer wishes to wreak havoc in men's lives. Karen (Teresa Palmer) is a stripper who accompanies him to Las Vegas and delights in being pushed in a shopping cart down the street, as all grown adults are apt to enjoy. Ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a doctor, agrees to see him, but the love they once shared can never be recaptured. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is married to another but falls for him anyway; she is sure he is her soulmate until an unforeseen event puts a snarl in their plans. And then there's Isabel (Isabel Lucas), so ill-used it's not exactly clear who she is. Meanwhile, Rick fails to connect with troubled ne'er-do-well brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and wrestles over his relationship with a grieving father, Joseph (Brian Dennehy), who worries the light has gone out in his son's eyes. Based on the evidence within, did he ever have a light to begin with?
"I spent thirty years not living life, and ruining it for others," the all-but-comatose Rick states in narration, spelling out what isn't apparent based on the lovely but oddly empty images shot by masterful cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (2015's "The Revenant
"). "Knight of Cups" is dense in its poetic wonderings, but writer-director Terrence Malick hasn't cooked up a proper film to go along with them. It would be kind to label Rick a cipher; as a character and especially as the anointed protagonist, he is a frustrating shell with a human face. The rare times when others talk to him, or ask him a question, or repeatedly query what is wrong, he shows no reaction and says nothing, or recoils in the corner. If he has high-functioning autism, no one seems to notice. "You're still the love of my life," Nancy wistfully says in voiceover, "Should I tell you that?" Later, Elizabeth says about Rick: "When I'm with you I forget everything else." Not only are the ladies in "Knight of Cups" treated as disposable, overly precious vessels for Rick's midlife crisis, but what they see in this guy is strictly determined by the necessity of the narrative. They come and go without fanfare and rarely with explanation, on hand to skip down sidewalks, cavort at water's edge, and look over their shoulders as Rick (the camera lens posing as his POV) follows closely behind in stalker fashion.
"Knight of Cups" has too much on its mind to be a total wash, but Terrence Malick has proven himself in decades' past to be such a special, one-of-a-kind auteur it is painful to see him stuck in a creative rut as he becomes a caricature of his brilliant former self. His latest work falls victim to too much familiarity and wheel-spinning, his barely-there narrative disconnected and abstruse to the point of squareness. As Rick, Christian Bale (2013's "American Hustle
") does what is asked of him, but looks terminally lost, his character arc blatantly created in post-production. When he isn't staring off balconies, looking through fences, and wandering around ornate mansions and abandoned buildings, he is asked to not interact with the other actors with whom he shares the screen. Despite being a screenwriter who doesn't write, he is prone to meandering down empty artificial city streets on studio backlotsan evocative reality-fiction dichotomy that nonetheless could only dream of approaching the depth, pathos and scope of Charlie Kaufman's thematically similar 2008 gem "Synecdoche, New York
." Die-hard supporters of Malick will want to love "Knight of Cups," and some may even try to fool themselves into believing there is more here than meets the eye. I certainly did for nearly the entire running time, until I closed my hand during the end credits on little more than fancy posturing intermingling with thin air. Malick has plenty yet to meditate upon, but needs to once again develop a proper story and characters to complement his restless, reflective spirit.