Terrence Malick has famously made only seven films in his career spanning 42 years, with more than half of those within the last ten. It’s of course welcome to see the man on such an obvious creative streak, after all, everyone knows that blissful and exhilarating feeling of being on a streak like that of their own, but with Knight of Cups hitting like a half-baked rip-off of much of the same themes as The Tree of Life, one wonders if Malick should slow down a little and develop his films a bit more thoroughly. Knight of Cups is undoubtedly a product of a moment in Malick’s career, a response to his possibly unprecedented, indeed enduring semi-mainstream attention as a result of Life. While Malick’s previous films have focused on historical contexts (bar To the Wonder, which mined similar religious territory as Life), Cups shifts its focus to modern day Los Angeles, its emptiness and endlessness.
Around halfway into the film, a Hollywood executive in the midst of a selling pitch to Rick (Christian Bale), tells him “let me tell you about you”. In short, that’s the approach that Malick has adopted with his characterisation here. Over its two hour run time, as Rick moves from each party to relationship and other cyclical experience, the film continually promises to explore a personal journey, but instead is the endless cast of characters telling him what he thinks and feels through breathy voiceovers. In another film that was framed with a more definite aim like Life, which explores the reverberations of childhood and faith, this way of detaching the protagonist form these explanations of himself would result in an exploration of how he had become as distant as LA is commonly regarded. But the result here is a film that’s ultimately too narratively loose even for Malick, without any definite themes holding it together. However, Bale, Portman, and Blanchett have shot scenes for Malick’s next feature, suggesting that maybe this is a world that’s not complete yet. That’s something we’ll hopefully find out soon.
The real star here, however, is the photography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Using modern equipment like GoPros as well as traditional cameras, something he hasn’t previously tackled, his work is nonetheless beautiful and the most fascinating part of an otherwise forgettable film.