REVIEW: Auteur Terrence Malick’s new film strays into the banal too often but is never less than beautiful.
The writer-director has been catnip to the cinephile community since Badlands, his 1973 debut feature, launched Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and himself on a public excited by American independent voices like Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola.
After his golden-hour masterpiece Days of Heaven in 1978, he retreated to the shadows, a reclusive presence (if that’s not a contradiction) around the scene, never giving interviews or being photographed. Rumours of projects being developed and abandoned maintained the mystery of a visionary director who wouldn’t play the game.
Twenty years later, he finally returned to the screen with The Thin Red Line, a star-studded Pacific World War II story that proved that his unerring eye had become even more astute during the missing years. He had settled on a method, too. Malick had always been a master of voiceover and by now was disdainful of traditional structure and classically dramatic scenes (you know, entrances and exits, beginnings and ends, narrative forward motion). I loved it but fell asleep in the middle anyway.
By The New World in 2005, he was still investigating deep human emotional truths in a grand setting (in this case a Puritan settlement in what was to become Virginia, ostensibly the story of Pocahontas and Captain Smith but at the same time so much more). Commercial audiences, who had never been terribly excited by Malick’s work but who were often persuaded by the calibre of critics and filmmakers who supported him, started to lose whatever interest they had.
By the time of the famous “Dinosaur Scene” in 2011’s The Tree of Life, the jig was pretty much up – even seasoned film festival audiences came out of it asking, “What was that?” Long dream sequences of Sean Penn walking around Iceland’s lumpy volcanic terrain or Bonneville’s salt flats looked like an extended American Express commercial. It was enormously frustrating or enormously rewarding, depending on your point of view. Despite the dinosaurs, your correspondent thought that it was one of the most profound and moving pieces of cinema of the century so far.
When his next film, To the Wonder (starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko), didn’t make it to the Embassy or Civic screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival, it seemed like the audience of passionate local cinephiles had diminished to the point where we all knew each other’s names. His latest – Knight of Cups – hasn’t made it to cinema screens at all, going straight to home video.
Less overtly Christian than To the Wonder, Knight of Cups takes its title and structure from tarot cards – and its subject matter from a world that Malick knows well, despite his ‘maverick’ status. Christian Bale, in his second film with the director, plays a successful but spiritually and emotionally bereft Hollywood screenwriter, cavorting with models, partying with stars, arguing with his family and yearning for fulfilment.
The voiceovers that hold it together come from many different voices – it starts with John Gielgud reading from The Pilgrim’s Progress for Ralph Vaughan Williams and features the internal thoughts of all the main characters but especially Bale’s writer, Cate Blanchett’s ex-wife, Brian Dennehy’s father and Wes Bentley’s depressed brother, but there’s also a regular contribution from Ben Kingsley (with an Irish accent) just to keep you on your toes.
It’s good that there’s plenty of voiceover because when you get to hear what actually comes out the characters’ mouths you’ll be disappointed by the banality. Malick has taken to encouraging long structured improvisations rather than a strictly scripted approach and the pitfalls of that method are on clear display here.
Working with his regular (this century at least) cinematographer, the great Emanuel Lubezki, Malick continues to make the most beautiful pictures. Light, earth, water: his images are often stunningly elemental and his habit of shooting his characters at waist level puts them in the context of the sky – the heavens – in ways that are never less than gorgeous but often frustratingly repetitive.
And Malick’s reductive view of women in Knight of Cups is sadly a sign of arrested development on his part. Again, always beautiful but always only one dimension. Maybe we’re supposed to add them all up to make one real person.
My viewing companion suggested that Knight of Cups might be Malick’s most overtly autobiographical film to date but with so little of his personal life available to us we may never know. But the tarot’s Knight of Cups means different things depending on whether it presents as upright or reversed – ideas, change, excitement and romance versus recklessness, unreliability and failure. It certainly sounds like a filmmaker’s life to me.
Knight of Cups is on home video and digital via Roadshow Entertainment. RRP is $34.99 for the DVD and $39.99 for the Blu-ray.