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To film lovers and Terrence Malick fans—circles that overlap but are hardly mutually inclusive—the evolution was evident. In Malick’s 2012 The Tree of Life, there were twirling and whispers and beaches and some (usually tense) dialogue. In 2013’s To the Wonder, there were twirling and whispers and beaches, but the “script” was composed entirely of thoughts and discrete lines that the characters were told to act out silently.
In Knight of Cups, Malick’s seventh outing, there are twirling and whispers and beaches, but no dialogue—the characters mumble about one another instead of talk to each other. The actors were given character descriptions and mildly suggested lines; star Christian Bale didn’t even get the latter. No one in the cast was told what the movie was about. Bale reportedly said that he had no idea what would happen to his character on any given day and tried to sneak peeks at the other actors’ meager pages in search of a clue. There was also no distinction between professional actors and other people Malick would use to “torpedo”—i.e. drop in on—a scene.
Malick’s typical direction? “Walk around and see what happens.”
What resulted was an experiment gone mostly wrong. The summary purports that the story is about Rick (Bale), a successful screenwriter trying to find love and himself in L.A. and Las Vegas. He’s having an existential crisis that money and women can’t seem to alleviate. And seeking such contentment involves Rick… walking around and seeing what happens.
Bale is a terrific actor, and his moping and escapades are much more diverting than staring at Ben Affleck’s moody jaw in To the Wonder. And he could almost get away with wringing some pathos and sympathy out of Rick if the guy were allowed to, you know, speak. Or if most of the scenes weren’t bursting with other characters and debauchery, which gets so distracting you forget what the film is allegedly about. Which I imagine you should, especially if the cast didn’t know themselves.
The whispered voiceovers, however, are constant, and there are a few that might gut-punch viewers who might be going through a similar crisis. “See the palm trees?” Rick intones during a shot of sunny Los Angeles. “They tell you anything is possible. You could start over.” Beat. “You don’t.” Bale even has a scene in which his eyes are bloodshot and he looks like he’s cried, which I frankly find impressive under Malick’s conditions. But then those bits of wisdom get ludicrous. “Blind. Deaf. Gasping,” Rick murmurs while seeming to discuss his father, who doesn’t appear to be any of those things. “The only way out is in,” a stripper (Teresa Palmer) says, telepathically, to Rick. What now?
What elevates Knight of Cups, which refers to a tarot card, above Malick’s previous two outings is the sparkle of L.A. and Las Vegas to those who can afford to live large. This film’s beaches are only occasionally gray; mostly there’s sun and skyscrapers and those devilish palm trees. Vegas, meanwhile, is this film’s City of Light, whether it’s the neon of a gentlemen’s club or the overboard illuminations and international fakery of the strip’s hotels. Rick also appears to have about 10 apartments, all well-appointed.
But cinematography (here by recent Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) can’t compensate for the film’s many flaws. Perhaps only Christopher Guest can pull off an entirely improvised movie. And perhaps Malick should return to scripts, full-volume voiceovers, and more linear storytelling if he doesn’t want to Woody Allen himself and push away fans for good.
Knight of Cups opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.