Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Knight of Cups

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
Terrence Malick is one of the cinema's most unique and original voices and some of his films - most notably, 2011's miraculous "The Tree of Life" - offer visions so ambitious and entrancing that the term "Malickian" has come to describe works that are ethereal, ponderous and visually dazzling.

His latest picture, "Knight of Cups," certainly meets at least one of those requirements - it looks amazing. But similar to his previous venture, "To the Wonder," Malick's newest feature feels as if it is missing something. While "Wonder" was a solid film that was a little lighter on content than previous Malick films, "Knight" is merely a decent enough picture, but mostly only due to its spectacular cinematography.

If Malick has begun to veer away from straightforward storytelling in recent years ("Tree" was often fragmented, but there was never any question as to what was taking place or what it was about, so to speak), the director started to lean toward the experimental with "Wonder" and, with "Cups," he's gone full blown in that direction.

What appears to take place in "Knight" is that a Hollywood hedonist - and apparent screenwriter, although there's little evidence to support that claim - known as Rick (Christian Bale) has decided to look inward after living a mostly empty and debauched life and make some necessary changes.

The picture opens with a quote from "Pilgrim's Progress" and a story about a king whose son was sent on a quest to find a rare pearl, but became entranced by pleasures of the flesh and soon forgot not only his mission, but also that he was the king's son.

This, of course, describes the story of "Knight of Cups" fairly accurately and Malick does a good job of setting up Rick's alienation and loneliness through a random assortment of images - impersonal highways with speeding cars, a studio lot door closing and blocking out the sun and, my personal favorite, a party in a glass-windowed apartment viewed by an obviously lonely eye from across the street.

If Bale is the son in question, then Brian Dennehy is the king and Wes Bentley is the troubled brother. I've read in various places that Malick himself had a younger brother who died young, so it makes sense that the clash between fathers and sons as well as brothers is a recurring theme in his work. It was utilized to its maximum effect in "The Tree of Life" and provides for some of the strongest scenes in "Knight." In fact, the relationship between Bale and Bentley, who have good familial screen chemistry, could have likely made for a good feature in itself.

The film, which has a title referring to a Tarot card, is broken up into various sections and a majority of the picture involves flashbacks to various love affairs between Rick and a menagerie of Hollywood's most beautiful and talented women - including Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer.

So, it's unfortunate that Rick's scenes with these women make for the movie's weakest sections as most of them appear to serve only as window dressing. While Rick gets to wander around pondering his existence and trying to shake himself out of his malaise, the women merely serve as his objects and rather than giving any of them much of a personality, they merely frolic in the way Malick's waifs tend to do, spinning around on beaches and in rooms with billowy curtains.

There are numerous passages in "Knight" that captivate due to the combination of the film's gorgeous photography and Malick's dreamy tone and there are even a few that are funnier than what you'd typically expect from the reclusive auteur. I especially liked one involving a flamenco dancing Antonio Banderas as a party's host.

But while "Knight of Cups" is just good enough to recommend to filmgoers with adventurous tastes, it doesn't stack up to the great films for which he is responsible: "The Tree of Life," "The Thin Red Line," "Badlands" and the stunning "Days of Heaven." The picture is a perfect example of a minor film from a major director.

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