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At the Movies: A “Knight” on the Town

For years, it has been clear that Terrence Malick has at best a complicated relationship with Hollywood. The legendary filmmaker took five years off after his first, critically-acclaimed film (1973’s “Badlands”) and 20 years off after his second (1978’s “Days of Heaven”).

 

By Noah Gittell

 

For years, it has been clear that Terrence Malick has at best a complicated relationship with Hollywood. The legendary filmmaker took five years off after his first, critically-acclaimed film (1973’s “Badlands”) and 20 years off after his second (1978’s “Days of Heaven”).  He is notoriously reclusive, refusing all requests for interviews, so when he recently reversed course with a burst of creativity — his latest, “Knight of Cups” is his third film in five years — fans and critics could only speculate as to the cause of his prolificacy. Here’s my theory: He stayed away because working in Hollywood is a soul-sucking experience, and maybe he came back — at least this year — because he finally had something to say about that.

 

To the degree that the themes of the sprawling, dreamy “Knight of Cups” can be nailed down, it is a film about the destructive impact of Hollywood culture. Christian Bale plays Rick, a disillusioned studio screenwriter who wanders silently through lavish parties, hotel rooms, and strip clubs like a minimalist tour guide. He points out some beautiful things - cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki probably deserves another Oscar for finding such beauty in the grays of downtown Los Angeles — but stays mute as to their meaning.

 

Virtually plotless and dialogue-free, “Knight of Cups” may be Malick’s most experimental film yet, and the void at its center certainly adds to the abstraction. As an actor, Bale rarely allows himself to be vulnerable, a quality that would have served him well in such a sparsely defined role. Most Malick films feature a character representing innocence — a child or child-like figure — which gives the audience something to hold onto during his whirlwind explorations of terrestrial heaven and hell. Here, Bale is just a cipher, and the places he takes us can’t be discerned as either.

 

Maybe this is by design. The film may not really about Rick at all but about the women in his past and the damage inflicted by men, Hollywood, and our culture at large. Like an art house “High Fidelity,” Rick visits each of them on his journey, although we’re never quite sure whether these visits are occurring in the past or present. There’s the young, runaway type (Imogen Poots) who leaves Rick’s life as quickly as she arrived; the beautiful model (Frieda Pinto) who suffers indignities during a routine photo shoot; Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) who has been nearly broken by his detachment and indecision; and the young woman with whom he has a passionate affair (Natalie Portman) that ends when she gets pregnant and isn’t sure if the baby belong to Rick or her husband.

 

And yet we never get to know any of these women well enough for their suffering to register. They are symbols, like everything else in “Knight of Cups,” and the characters matter more as a collective than as individuals. We don’t see Rick ever connecting with his women, only grasping then falling away, perpetually eluding each other’s grasps. There is a hilarious underwater montage midway through the film of dogs trying and failing to grab tennis balls in a swimming pool. It’s a rare moment of levity in an overwhelmingly heavy film, and it is the best encapsulation of Malick’s overarching motif: Rick’s futility in reaching out for happiness and being unable to hang on. In a sense, all of his films are about that, and this one is no better or worse, just another desperate variation on an endlessly repeating theme.

 

None of which can tell you whether “Knight of Cups” is worth seeing or not. The film may be best defined as autobiography — in addition to the Hollywood milieu, Malick and his protagonist both had a brother who committed suicide — and viewers who can specifically relate to its themes may find deep meaning and even catharsis in it. For the rest of us, “Knight of Cups” is as Rick is, wandering through the abyss, trying to make meaning of it but unable to find the words.


My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

 


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