When you regret the past, do you stare pensively at oceans while wearing Giorgio Armani? When you feel melancholy, do you express it by lounging in expensive apartments while burning through relationships with a series of models? When you think, is it only metaphorically, in terms like "Because I stumbled down the road like a drunk, it doesn't mean it was the wrong one"? If so, Terrence Malick's film Knight of Cups accurately describes your inner state, but everyone else it might leave cold.
Malick has always been interested in the strangeness of internal thought. The childlike killers in Badlands or the beatific soldier in The Thin Red Line were extremely specific characters even as their minds rambled into abstract philosophy and poetry. By contrast, Knight of Cups' Rick (Christian Bale) is a man without qualities, who only stares and looks sad. The film details his Hollywood mid-life crisis with all the heft of an ad for clothing. Its beautiful landscapes look like a luxury car is about to pull up. The phrases that populate its inner monologues are so perversely scrubbed of anything approaching detail that they read like platitudes. Skilled actors show up and start to fill in that detail but are drowned out by wind or surf or their own voiceovers, which are phrases like "I was afraid when I was young. Afraid of life," repeated without context. The intent seems to be to replace the day-to-day with the timeless, but it's bland.
Bale thinks of himself as a knight from a childhood story about one who was bewitched and forgot his quest. Interspersed with his thoughts are those of his father, brother, and girlfriends, as well as John Gielgud reading Pilgrim's Progress and Ben Kingsley reading Biblical apocrypha and the Persian medieval philosopher Suhrawardi. Beneath these run a never-ending array of interactions with women between chapter headings named after tarot cards. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant) constantly moves the camera, floating up and down bodies, away from and towards faces, in an effort to give static scenes excitement and interest. Many of the actors are comedians (Dan Harmon, Nick Offerman) or crusty old pros (Brian Dennehy, Armin Mueller-Stahl) who would be interesting to hear speak, but have little audible dialogue. We see their raw emoting under ambient noise and classical music. Comedian Thomas Lennon has described the process: He was thrown into a scene with Christian Bale with no explanation and told to improv.
Things that actors and models do when told to interact with no script include: playing with dogs, drawing in the sand, breaking chairs, breaking TVs, chasing each other with plants, making out in an empty bathtub, jumping in pools, aerial dance, ice sculpture, ballet, putting their feet in the other's mouth, and crying. Malick is excited about beaches, water, highway interchanges, children playing, models, and helicopters. Images of these recur and recur. My favorite shot is of a pelican that Bale and Wes Bentley momentarily follow on a pier. The camera stays on it for a few seconds, and its face has a lot of character.
The shots of expressways and cities at night recall Solaris and Koyaanisqatsi, two films which make the purely visual enthralling. Malick should follow his interest into the impressionistic and grandiose.
The funniest thing here is that Rick is a screenwriter in a film in desperate need of one. Or it would be funny, had I not learned that online. Despite the fact that Rick is often seen on film sets, the viewer is not able to discern his job.