After Terrence Malick returned from a two-decade absence with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, each new film of his felt like a thing to be treasured. These weren’t just movies. They were gifts from an auteur who many feared would never work again.
Now, in 2016, that’s no longer the case. Malick has put out two movies since 2011’s The Tree of Life, the latest being Knight of Cups, a lyrical examination of a Hollywood screenwriter in crisis (Christian Bale). The movie bears all the hallmarks of late-era, prolific Malick: meandering pace, voice-over, many recognizable stars, and cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki that will make you say, “At least it’s pretty.”
The obscurity that pervades every frame of Knight of Cups make two of its key elements difficult to grasp. One is its sense of humor… or what may be its sense of humor. It’s been 43 years since Malick went for a laugh, so it’s at times hard to say whether we’re finally seeing his funny bone again or not. You could look to the cameos for guidance—Thomas Lennon, Dan Harmon, and Nick Kroll all appear in Hollywood scenes that seem to have a satirical bend—but everything else is so self-serious.
As Knight of Cups washes over you, the movie it might be—or might have been—begins to chrystalize. (And this may be because your mind is wandering). Is it funny? It is funny, maybe. This is Malick sharing his thoughts about what’s become a vapid and soulless industry and how it conflicts with his image of humans as ethereal beings. But why are we spending so much time with another Christian Bale conquest? We were just getting used to the last beautiful, thin woman. At every turn, the film shakes off each attempt a viewer makes to cling to it.
Essentially shapeless and paced like the tide rolling in, Knight of Cups should be reserved for hardcore Malick fans only, those who have the patience to metaphorically wade through the literal wading, which there happens to be a lot of in this movie. C-