KNIGHT OF CUPS will please those who can drop preconceptions and go with director Terrence Malick’s recognizable artistic flow and experimental idea pool: supremely visual as a sensory bath, opaque and open-ended on the cerebral side. It will bore and/or put off those who don’t want to play along. In between the rapturous applause and the hooting jeers is the link that if anything is certain about his movies, it’s that he makes them for himself and not for a set demographic (good luck with the masses). They do require patience.
This 2015 piece of his ever-expanding puzzle drew more negative reactions than his earlier works, with some taking the setting (L.A. and the film-making scene) and protagonist (Christian Bale as a hedonism worn screenwriter) as another exercise in industry insider narcissism. I don’t think that’s much of a case, since his other movies have dealt with rural outlaws, itinerant farm help, soldiers in combat, pioneers, and brothers in 1950s middle class Texas (with dinosaurs). They all share an unhurried rhythm in common, and it’s likely the naysayers are weary of Malick’s free-floating camera dazzle and elliptical voice-overs taking precedence over linear storytelling and want him to just get to the point. Reviews ranged from astonished to abysmal. Not many went, as it made a crushing $1,100,000.
Navel-gazing doesn’t interest me (unless it’s Jessica Alba), nor does either lionizing or excoriating a particular societal subset. In this case it would be attractive & privileged Hollywoodians, but my save-the-sermon criteria also applies to cops, religious types, teachers, plumbers or whoever waves the fashionable p.c. banner. Yet I found Bale’s soul-seared search here (for a way out, a way back in?) to be compelling, and the seemingly disconnected snatches of dialogue (improvised) to have quite a few little stings of impact. The cinematography (from Emmanuel Lubezki) is simply non-stop-drop-dead beautiful, and the array of locations is inspired. Sense of place and mood is extraordinary.
Interesting music scoring from Hannan Townshend. Ben Kingsley narrates. Keeping Bale company in his meandering, meditative mischief and misery: Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Freida Pinto (proof God exists), Peter Matthiessen, Cherry Jones, Nick Offerman, Michael Wincott and Ryan O’Neal (not realizing how or why he was there?) and… Fabio (don’t ask).
In tarot, the Knight of Cups card deals a duel. Turned up, it can represent change, often of a romantic nature (Bale’s wanderings are interspersed with a half-dozen women he has been involved with—finding and then losing Freida Pinto would certainly put me in an existential daze). Turned down, it can reflect someone who has trouble discerning where truth ends and lies begin. Terrence Malick is fascinated by and unafraid to share with you his look at different sides to heady questions. He risks giving you something to think about, and unarguably has few equals when it comes to the pictorial. 118 minutes that will either pull you in and hold you mostly spellbound or have you hissing breath and shaking your head while looking for an exit. I liked it a lot.