Monday, March 14, 2016

Knight of Cups (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick


There's so much to like in Knight of Cups. It's got a great assortment of beautiful actors, caught up in another swirling cinematic ballet from Terrence Malick. Since his fifth film, The Tree of Life (a film meant to be his magnum opus and it rises to that expectation), Malick has gravitated more and more toward the abstract. 2013's To The Wonder was a sweet, melancholy companion piece with a much more reduced viewpoint and a surprisingly tender portrait of the whims of romance - it's also one of the few times that Malick crafted a female character (Olga Kurylenko's Marina) that wasn't simply a male fantasy of love and virility. If we're making Knight of Cups the third part of an unofficial trilogy, it fits in aesthetically, but not so much emotionally. It's an angrier film, much more subjective, a film that sees less grace in life. It's not a satire of Los Angeles, but it's certainly a commentary. It sees life in the film business as not really life at all, but a prolonged dream sequence fueled by excess in drugs, sex, power. This is the third collaboration between Malick and legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. These two artists have such a wonderful visual fusion together. Lubezki has made many films by many filmmakers look incredible, but its his work with Malick that really sticks out. Malick isn't interested in making Lubezki do endurance tests the way Cuarón and Iñárritu are, but instead taps into the Mexican cameraman's ability to craft blissful, fluid shots of human interaction. Knight of Cups is far from either Malick's or Lubezki's best work, but it's another example of their mastery of cinematic lyricism. Too bad the same can't be said of Malick's handle of narrative.

Malick is credited with writing a screenplay here, but there is not much evidence of one. As actors on the film's set will attest, Malick didn't exactly prepare many of the bit part actors with much in the way of story. But generally, what Knight of Cups gives us is the story of a burned out actor named Rick (Christian Bale), whose life consists of surreal Los Angeles parties and a carousel of sexual partners, some of whom he contrives legitimate feelings for but not many. Rick's father, Joseph (Brian Dennehy), is a decrepit failure drowning in grief after the death of his son, Rick's brother. There's another brother, Barry (Wes Bentley), who is troubled and violent, and sees all problems as something of Joseph's creation. Many scenes consist of Rick idly standing in the midst a tempestuous argument between the two volatile men. The weight of his father and brother's grief sits atop Rick, and as with every other thing in his life, he's become numb to it. In a lot of ways, Knight of Cups is a sequence of conquests that Rick partakes in to find some form of feeling. There's his pitiful wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), who does her best to stay committed despite her husband's philandering. Nancy is a regal beauty who has the altruistic occupation of nurse, but this doesn't stop Rick from getting into bed with a number of women, including a stripper (Teresa Palmer), a fashion model (Freida Pinto), a mascara-laden rebel (Imogen Poots), a platinum blonde innocent (Isabel Lucas), and a married woman (Natalie Portman). Malick breaks the film into eight distinct parts (with fancy title cards touting chapter names like "Judgment" and "The High Priestess"), all dealing with Rick's spiritual relationships with these women.

The film also enjoys several cameos from a number of male actors, including but not limited to Thomas Lennon, Nick Offerman, Joe Lo Truglio, Clifton Collins Jr. and frickin' Fabio. Most of them get little more than a spare line, most of them are hardly seen by the camera, and all of them hold no significance in the film other than distracting you with their presence. The decision is so deliberate that it's hard not to see it as something that Malick has done on purpose. But to what end? Antonio Banderas shows up midway through, as Tonio, an amoral playboy with a decadent mansion who hosts what is probably the film's most excessive party - and this is basically a film filled with excessive parties. Banderas gives the film what is probably its most exciting moment. The actor has a taste for the character, while most of the other actors only seem to have a taste of other Malick films. Being in Los Angeles is a change for the director, whose made a career out of shooting astonishing vistas and using nature to its highest benefit. Knight of Cups is nearly all urban locales, and veteran production designer Jack Fisk gives Malick the perfect set pieces for his actors to play on. There are few shining creeks and blooming trees, replaced instead by rust-stained rooftops and stainless penthouses, cake-like mansions and platinum poolsides. Far from the first to do it, Malick paints an image of LA as an image-conscious, multi-layered and multi-cultural wasteland. This is Altman's The Player by way of T.S. Eliot. Most of all, Malick is obsessed with the beautiful people; just how many there are, and how willing they all are to give into the fantasy. Rick is the lost soul the film chooses to follow, but he's far from the only one we see. Knight of Cups fills its characters with a longing for anything but what they have.

This is a beautiful film, and one that has several astonishing scenes and sequences, but its final forty-five minutes felt like a real chore because the film has nowhere to go. One does not attend a Malick film expecting a tight, Syd Field-ian screenplay, but Malick is not going complete abstraction here. Knight of Cups has meaning and it's as if the filmmaker is working backwards, adding obstacles for the audience so that they must fight to find that meaning. It's less a film than the subject of some film student's term paper. There are too many redundancies in theme from Malick's previous films - the shattering power of grief, the concept of the ocean as paradise - for this film to feel as fresh as Tree of Life which was revolutionary in part because of how it told its story, while Knight of Cups strips its story raw and Malick snickers while the audience is forced to pick up the pieces. There is still so much to like here, probably more so if you simply throw out Malick's half-assed narrative experimentations. Bale's performance is difficult to judge objectively, because he is such a pawn in Malick's game, but I found myself drawn to him here. For an actor who uses intensity the way athletes use steroids, I've enjoyed Bale's quieter performances of late. In Cups he broods, but he also smiles his fang-y smile and gives the film a bit of a kick of energy. Playing off of numerous women, Bale's Rick tosses off emotional relationships often, the more devastating the better. Malick is interested in his redemption but only in a roundabout way that plays into the director's penchant for measured surreality. This is a far from perfect film, and it's one that's more interesting when thought of as part of a filmmaker's oeuvre than a standalone piece, but Malick is incapable of making an uninteresting film, and there are many individual things to value here. It's the overall sum I'm not sure about.

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