We’ll always have Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), undisputed landmarks in American cinema. We may need a bit more time before we can declare the same for The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), but the former took the #10 spot in Film Comment‘s 2010 poll of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century and, just last month, the latter landed at #1 in Kevin B. Lee‘s informal poll, “The Best Films of the Decade So Far (2010-2014).” No matter what Terrence Malick does after these five films—and opinion remains split on To the Wonder (2012)—it won’t shake his reputation as one of the giants or erase the profound influence his distinctive style has had on cinema, from the work of Shane Carruth to television commercials.
But Malick has backed himself into a corner. In 2013, Nick Schager wrote for Vulture: “Malick’s style has never been a particularly static thing, evolving constantly over the course of his six-film career. Still, the Malickian hallmarks remain: reflective voice-over from multiple characters that is often at odds with the visuals; rapturous magic-hour landscape shots; cutaways from the action proper to images of trees, sky, insects, water; swelling orchestral-and-organ music of Wagnerian import; and contrasts between the majesty of nature and the shortcomings of man.”
Now that Knight of Cups has premiered in Competition in Berlin, we must sadly report that Malick’s style is now officially “a particularly static thing.” I take no pleasure in writing here that Knight of Cups borders on self-parody. It isn’t simply the ceaseless repetition of stylistic tropes; thematically, too, Malick is stuck in a rut. Christian Bale’s Rick is essentially another Jack O’Brien, the vortex of Malickiana in The Tree of Life played by Hunter McCracken as a boy and by Sean Penn as an adult. Rick may be a Hollywood player rather than an architect, but he, too, lost a brother, blames his abusive father (Brian Dennehy) and now struggles to reconnect with the world of the living.
You’ll remember Sean Penn wandering remote barren landscapes; there’s way more than plenty of that here, too. Bale’s remarks at today’s press conference (as reported by Leo Barraclough in Variety, Alex Ritman in the Hollywood Reporter and Nigel M. Smith at Indiewire—I wasn’t there) suggest that he knew all about his character and nothing at all about the story, or in other words, about what his character was supposed to be doing, where he was coming from or where he was going in any particular scene. Throughout all these walking shots—over rocks, through hotel rooms, Los Angeles parties, Venice Beach, the kitsch architecture of Las Vegas, everywhere—his pace is exactly the same, a sort of moping lope without any sense of direction. Which may well be what Malick is after, but Rick does eventually experience a few flashes of enlightenment (the appearance of Peter Matthiessen is a shock; that of Armin Mueller-Stahl as a priest, not so much)—and the pace of those meandering steps remains the same.
Then there’s the matter of the women. Even champions of Knight of Cups—and I’ve met many out there on Potsdamer Platz—will be inclined to admit that the endless parade of lithe female bodies in various states of undress is going to be, at the very least, a matter of discussion. Rick’s father calls him a “womanizer,” but that’s not the half of it. Rick may be disillusioned with (or simply disengaged from) the superficial pleasures of wealth and power, but he shows no inclination to give up the party girls, the flings, even the serious affairs following the break-up of his marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett). And at least two out of three of these women, it seems, end up down at the beach with Rick, frolicking, frolicking and frolicking some more.
The wispiness and the whispered voiceover (ranging again from snippets of dialogue to prayer-like calls out into the cosmos; my favorite: “Ah, life.”), but most of all, the sheer repetition become, all too soon for this viewer, overbearing. When the credits rolled, all I could think was, “Thank God it’s over.” Rumor has it that the film Malick shot all but simultaneously with Knight of Cups, the one set in Austin’s music scene, will likely premiere at Cannes in May. I sincerely hope that the fresh milieu will rejuvenate the imagination of one our greatest living filmmakers.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
For Variety‘s Justin Chang, “there’s something at once vividly familiar and strikingly different about Knight of Cups, a feverish plunge into the toxic cloud of decadence swirling around a Los Angeles screenwriter gone to seed.” This is “a corrosive critique of Hollywood hedonism—a poisoned valentine to the industry by way of a Fellini-esque bacchanal. Those who have had their fill of the director’s impressionistic musings will find his seventh feature as empty as the lifestyle it puts on display; for the rest of us, there’s no denying this star-studded, never-a-dull-moment cinematic oddity represents another flawed but fascinating reframing of man’s place in the modern world.”
“We wait, and wait, to see if anyone will dislodge [cinematographer Emmanuel] Lubezki as the star of this particular show,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “Malick feels less interested in actors than he ever has…. Few young stars would turn down a Malick invitation, and so: Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman. With their pirouettes to camera, repeat-offend voguing and fetish for magic-hour cavorting around Malibu, every one of them feels like she’s auditioning for Olga Kurylenko’s role in To the Wonder.”
“Taking its name from a tarot card, Knight of Cups grabs the epically internalized navel-gazing of [To the Wonder] and takes it forward into full-on Malickian throttle,” writes Michael Pattison for Movie Mezzanine. “[T]his punishingly po-faced tone-poem thinks that in the 21st century a great artist can get away with writing lines like, ‘Be with me, you give me what the world can’t give: mercy, love, peace, joy…’ As another character says to Rick: ‘Tell me something interesting.’ Penned by Malick, this has the ring of some suicidal dare.”
More from Mark Adams (Screen), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 2/5), Giovanni Marchini Camia (Film Stage, B-), Sophie Monks Kaufman (Little White Lies), Eric Kohn (Indiewire, B), Jessica Kiang (Playlist, B) and Todd McCarthy (THR).
Updates, 2/11: “Knight of Cups is absolutely about now, it looks like it was shot yesterday, a direct vision of a sunny, frighteningly inhuman Los Angeles,” writes Daniel Kasman in his conversation with Adam Cook about the film in the Notebook. Adam: “It seems, at least to me, that even if Malick is failing, he’s failing while trying radical things, not just with the image, and staging, and how to use cinema’s expressive qualities to create an experience or articulate a feeling or idea. Some say it’s naïve or foolish, but in any case it is bold, and it is experimental.”
“Sure, the spiritual-lite aphorisms that appear in voiceover at times border on cliché, but to outright dismiss the film isn’t doing justice to the genuine pearls to be found within this challenging masterwork,” writes Andrew Grant for Filmmaker.
“Malick has delivered an exasperating, exhilarating magnum opus, a film with unapologetic, vaulting ambition that is to be prized, even cherished,” declares Neil Young at RogerEbert.com.
For the Los Angeles Times‘ Steven Zeitchik, “what Cups might most lay bare is the spiritual melancholy of Malick’s modern work, a sense of a man who realizes he may never find what he’s seeking, but to stop trying would be tragic.”
Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door: “Perhaps the shallowness of Knight of Cups is, in fact, deceptive, befitting a world obsessed with appearances, a hollow spiritual core that Malick seems to be trying to exorcise by sheer dint of applying his ecstatic style and ramping up the philosophical ruminations to near-mythic levels. After all, surely there’s a reason that the film occasionally features a Ben Kingsley voiceover reciting passages from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, that classic of religious English literature: Malick is trying to infuse this world with a dignity that it doesn’t have.”
“If nothing else, the orgiastic catalogue of parties, hotels and corporate skyscrapers may be valuable to future generations as a record of Western capitalism at its most vapid and decadent,” writes the BBC’s Nicholas Barber. “It’s just a shame that the film itself is no less vapid and decadent than the lifestyle it’s depicting.”
Updates, 2/15: Michael J. Anderson argues that Knight of Cups “is a bravely contrary work, a film that deigns to position itself against a prevailing Hollywood moral system that celebrates the acts that torment Rick no less, no less than against an artistic mode that privileges story and affirmative self-actualization. Knight of Cups is counter-cinema in every sense of the phrase, a new dream-like form (that heightens the quintessentially Malickian) that incorporates some of the most staggering imagery, both photographed and computer-generated, of the decade. This new culmination of Malick’s art and craft may just be one for the ages.”
“A rare and eloquent example of poetry on screen,” declares Travis Jeppesen, writing for Artforum.
But for Sight & Sound editor Nick James, “these ‘what is life?’ musings seemed to range more unbearably from empty to repetitive to gormless to preachy. Malick, to me, seems to reflect his own character’s lostness in that, at times, his new aesthetic, despite its striving, is unavoidably hollow in effect.”
And let’s not forget the women. Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice: “Oh, the emptiness of their crass materialism and their addiction to Pilates and SoulCycle! Except they do have really nice butts. But no! We must avert our eyes from their gluteus evil, though it’s perfectly OK to gaze upon the diaphanous beauty of Blanchett and Portman, playing virtuous ladies who may have occasional moments of weakness but who would never, ever wear trendy, overpriced designer shoes from Fred Segal. There’s something distastefully Biblical about Malick’s view of women in Knight of Cups.”
Update, 2/21: “Visually arresting Knight of Cups may be,” grants Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman, “but it finds the director at his most insipid…. It’s astonishing that the film is positioned as a corrective to the superficial when it has as much depth as a New Age bumper sticker.”
As Danny Kasman noted this evening, it was a little odd seeing Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button right after Knight of Cups. Anyone who’s seen Nostalgia for the Light (2010) will know that Guzmán, like Malick, has taken on a penchant for exploring topics as big as the known universe in his later years (Malick is 71; Guzmán, 73). Early in his career, Guzmán made documentary history with his hard-hitting down-to-earth trilogy, The Battle of Chile, filmed before the US-funded coup d’état brought down—and killed—the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, and edited in exile afterward. Allende, the coup and the unspeakably harsh years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship have remained Guzmán’s primary concern ever since, even as these topics have been placed in ever-widening contexts, as they are in Nostalgia and Pearl.
In the press kit, Guzmán tells Frederick Wiseman that he sees Nostalgia and Pearl as “a diptych.” The “first is set in the extreme north” of Chile, “and the second in the extreme opposite.” While Nostalgia turned to astronomy and archeology in its exploration of where Chile’s decades of suffering fits into the grand scheme of things, Pearl opens with a reverie on water—as it falls as rain or flows in oceans and rivers, of course, but also as vapors in our solar system and in distant galaxies and quasars. Katell Djian‘s cinematography in these abstract passages rivals even Lubezki’s, it has to be said, and of course, Guzmán’s voiceover narration is neither pained nor whispered, but rather, a plain-spoken string of facts and informed conjecture.
Guzmán’s story centers on the five ancient tribes of western Patagonia, an archipelago with around 46,000 miles of coastline. Before the arrival of white explorers and Catholic missionaries, an estimated 8,000 indigenous peoples lived in the archipelago, canoeing from islet to fjord. Today, only around twenty direct descendants survive. Guzmán interviews a handful, one of them telling how current governmental regulations keep him from paddling his traditional canoe and another patiently translates Spanish words for Guzmán, one by one, recalling the language she spoke as a child. And “God”? he asks. Pause. “We didn’t have a word for that.”
Transitioning to the methods of death by torture under Pinochet’s regime from all this fascinating history—the title, by the way, comes from the story of Jemmy Button, to whom an English captain gave a mother of pearl button in exchange for taking him to Britain for a year, turning him into a gentleman and then returning him to Patagonia stripped of his true identity—through passages on water as music giving shape to the very way we think, that is, thought itself… On paper, it looks as if it’s all a mighty stretch, but Guzmán’s associative poetry flows smoothly and beautifully.
Updates, 2/11: “Guzman’s unique gift lies in his ability to weave together multiple modes of documentary: the picturesque, the political and the poetic,” writes Kevin B. Lee for Indiewire.
Updates, 2/15: “It is a clear-eyed work of exposé, analysis and poetry, with little pretense and instead a touching evocation of scale, the scale of time and history, culture and crimes, and nature’s relation to it all,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Water is the perfect analogy for this, with its simultaneous micro and macroscopic existence.”
The Pearl Button “pulled off an unusual, if not unprecedented feat when, as a documentary, it took home the Berlinale Best Screenplay award,” notes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “But it’s very well-deserved, because while unscripted interviews do form a large part of this questing, curious, expansive film, what unites and elevates it is the flow of its ideas and Guzman’s scintillating narration.”
Update, 2/21: “A supremely lyrical, thoughtful piece of filmmaking, it would probably seem still more remarkable had we not already seen Nostalgia for the Light,” writes BFI programmer Geoff Andrew.