Terrence Malik is going through an ultra productive period in recent years, with ‘Tree of Life’ (2011), ‘To the Wonder’ (2012) and now ‘Knight of Cups’. This is after famously having a twenty year gap between ‘Days of Heaven’ and ‘The Thin Red Line’. I loved ‘The Thin Red Line’, but tried ‘To The Wonder’ and gave up on it. Malik’s style is definitely polarising – all beautiful lingering shots with minimal dialogue and plot. I have deliberately avoided reviews before writing my own, but I’m guessing they will vary widely. I am as arty (and indeed, farty) as the next guy, but this style has stretched even me to my limits.
I also have a complex relationship with Christian Bale. ‘Empire of the Sun’ is my favourite film of all time and when I was young, I couldn’t wait to see what the adult Bale would accomplish. He showed promise in the 1990s with ‘Metroland’, ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and ‘American Psycho’. But then he achieved meteoric fame with ‘The Dark Knight’ Trilogy and although I am a fan of the latter two films (I have never made it through ‘Batman Begins’ awake), Bale is by far the weakest link in Nolan’s work for me. This is also when he appeared to go full ‘method’ – giving interviews in different accents and also when he had his famous ‘Terminator’ on-set meltdown. For every good performance (‘The Prestige’, ‘The Big Short’), there seems to be a bad one – I could not stand him in ‘The Fighter’. This has left me feeling crushed, wounded, betrayed and very wary about each new Bale film that comes along.
Ironically, Bale’s performance in ‘Knight of Cups’ is one of its strongest elements. He has to hold together this dreamscape of a film, meandering through beautiful scenery and locations with only a voice-over to give any context to the series of images we’re seeing. This film would be more appropriate for a modern art gallery than a cinema – it is a collection of stunning visuals, barely held together by any narrative or plot. It is loosely thematically linked by ‘characters’ from tarot – the ‘Knight of Cups’ being one. It also has allusions to the Bible – perhaps Jesus’ lost 40 days and 40 nights in the desert when he tries to find himself and avoid temptation from Satan. There are also similarities with the medieval morality play ‘Everyman’ and Bale’s Rick is clearly supposed to be the everyman at the centre of the ‘story’ – one clue being that he wears the same clothes throughout the film. The problem is that Rick’s trials, tribulations and temptations come in the form of a succession of increasingly attractive women. Two of these women are two of the most beautiful and best actresses of our generation – Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to feel sympathy or even care for a rich, white Hollywood writer who is being ‘tortured’ by stunning surroundings and stunning people.
A slightly more interesting side-note is Rick’s younger brother, played by Wes Bentley and his father, played by the phenomenal Brian Dennehy. ‘Knight of Cups’ picks up hugely when either of these characters are on screen, as it makes a change from Bale dancing around one of his gorgeous girlfriends. The film held my interest mainly because it is set in LA, which I have recently moved to and I enjoyed identifying the locations. It makes an interesting counter-point to ‘La La Land’, which I recently saw – with the Warner Bros lot vast and empty, rather than busy and colourful. Although Bale’s almost wordless performance was strong, the film would have worked better if it was entirely from his point-of-view, with the camera as his eyes. This may have made it easier to empathise with a character it is hard to feel for. The film meanders along and it seems as if the protagonist doesn’t learn, grow or change. His journey of self-discovery doesn’t really go anywhere. You are left feeling as if you’ve witnessed something beautiful but empty. Perhaps it is a critique of Hollywood after all.