Films by director Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line) demand much of the viewer. Not surprising that the man who graduated summa cum laude in Philosophy from Harvard has made a career out of making films that are largely existential in nature with star-studded casts. He is a filmmaker meaning that he will never make a movie. Don’t expect a tent-pole, action filled and easy to follow film from this man.
Knight of Cups is a quintessential Malick film. His style has not changed despite his relative high production level of late. After taking twenty years in between his second and third films, Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), he is the midst of four films in five years. Like most of his films there is no strict structure in regards to the storytelling (Malick is also the screenwriter here), plenty of scenes outdoors in natural light and the usual narration. Actually, there is very little dialogue here. Lead (and a favourite of Malick’s) Christian Bale had very little memorizing to do in this film.
Though Knight of Cups runs along rather evenly there is emotion and human experience there to be found. We follow successful screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale – The Dark Knight, The Big Short) around for a period in his life. He seems to be a rich, womanizer, who doesn’t like himself very much. Briefly we see different jobs he does, parties he attends, time spent with his family, and women he has relations or relationships with. A guy trying to figure out his life? Maybe.
As you can see there is not much of a plot or story here. Dialogue is practically non-existent and seemingly improvisionational. Baffling is a good word to use to describe this film. Is it a criticism of the empty Hollywood scene or a look at what it means to wring as much out of life as we can? Who knows? Just Malick. Though due to the befuddling nature of the mysterious story and the at times stunning cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Y Tu Mama Tambien) it is something that will make you sit up and take notice and think about long after you leave the cinema.
Do keep your eyes open for the ton of cameos in the film. You get such diverse actors as Ryan O’Neal, Antonio Banderas, Fabio, Nick Kroll, Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jason Clarke, Clifton Collins Jr., Nick Offerman, Joe Manganiello, Joe Lo Truglio, and Freida Pinto. Plus Ben Kingsley as a narrator. None have very much to do. In other words blink and you’ll miss many of them.
When you are rating a Terence Malick film you don’t use the typical scale or compare it to any other filmmaker’s work. He is a unique talent, who has carved out his own niche within the film world. All that can be said is that you either like Malick films or don’t. He is not someone who makes films that people are in the middle about. His films require brain power and patience. Malick stands firmly on the outside of the film world refusing to cave in to the demand for commercial success. Not for everyone, but really enjoyed by fans of his philosophical style. Daring originality.