Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Knight of Cups (2016)

Film: Knight of Cups (2016)
Stars: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley
Director: Terrence Malick
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Entering the world of a Terrence Malick film, for me, is a religious experience.  No other director, save perhaps for Bergman or Kubrick, is such a guarantee of a visceral, gut-wrenching, provocative cinematic journey.  Malick's films are always unique upon themselves, perhaps wise, perhaps just pretty pictures, but as a deep, deep fan of his work I leave even his strangest or most limited of movies a different person, surrounded by the ethereal language of his storytelling.

(Spoilers Ahead) This is a fancy way of saying that I went into Knight of Cups with a bias that is probably not going to be easily assuaged, even though I had seen the reviews and was aware that even amongst the most ardent of Malick fans, the picture may have shown some signs of wear-and-tear.  Summarizing a Malick film into simply its plot and nothing more is a foolish, ridiculous thing, but suffice it to say we have Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter enjoying intense success, but also with that a lascivious indulgence of sex, drugs, and most imperatively, gluttony.  Gluttony in every sense, as we see Bale, gorgeous, nonchalant, but ultimately shallow in his approach to life, have a dreamy, impossibly-blessed existence from which he and those around him derive little joy, even if they ultimately couldn't live without it.

In part I was reminded of the films of Paolo Sorrentino, whose near-perfect The Great Beauty has come the closest in the sea of Malick imitators in the past few years to achieving the sort of moving, profound visual dialogue with the audience that only Malick has been able to grasp in such a way.  Like Sorrentino's films, we see a world of decadence, gaudy and yet always beautiful.  Emmanuel Lubezki, three Oscars in, somehow will likely go without having ever won for a Malick film (it's hard to imagine him winning a fourth while Terry is still making movies), but man is the cinematography here on-fire.  The warehouse scenes and the sequences on an old movie lot are particularly jarring, seeing the phoniness of the world around a particularly plastic individual and the way that even human life doesn't seem to liven up the world around us.  Yes, the nature scenes are gorgeous, but I found the man-made structures, which Malick always frames in odd, almost alien ways (who can forget the Sonic station in To the Wonder and how it felt like it was encroaching on the natural beauty of the nature around it), to be the highlights visually.

The acting in his films is deeply hard to judge, partially because Malick is an unforgiving editor (lest we forget that Mickey Rourke, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Sheen were all A-listers that randomly got cut from his movies), and also because no actor, save for Bale, is given more than the tiniest smidgen of dialogue.  That being said, Blanchett and Bentley are the highlights for me, as Blanchett creates a woman that feels authentically of a world not just of Bale's imagination.  In fact, she is perhaps the only woman that doesn't feel like a part of his dream, while others like Freida Pinto and Natalie Portman lift in and out of the story to the point where you can't tell if they are just flights of fancy, so beautiful that Bale just added them to his mental aesthetic.  Bentley is equally as good as the disappointment of a brother, the one who knows the hold he has on Bale and his father, but who is too callous and perhaps even too middling to be able to do anything except prod.

The movie is not, it should be noted, anywhere as good as The Tree of Life or To the Wonder, the other two in what appears to be a biographical trilogy of Malick remembrances (early in his career, before he became a cinematic Thomas Pynchon, Malick wrote films for the likes of Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman so this is clearly that portion of his career).  The scope is too limited in focusing on the meaning of purpose rather than the broader meaning of life or meaning of love like his other more recent pictures.  There are moments in the film that feel a tad indulgent, and Bale doesn't have the prowess in his role that, say, Brad Pitt or Q'orianka Kilcher brought to previous work in Malick pictures.  That being said, this is judging on a curve and while his flights of fancy don't pay off, there are still relatively profound moments, especially with Blanchett and Bentley, that resonate far beyond what is happening just in the moments in a dimmed theater.

Those are my thoughts on this, Malick's latest for probably a while (I'll believe that Weightless exists when I see it)-how about yours?  Are you Team Malick, and if so, share a favorite film?  And where does Knight of Cups rank in his pantheon?

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