Terrence Malick’s first two feature films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978,) captivated the imaginations of art film lovers with austere lyricism and gorgeously photographed heartland landscapes. The fact that cinephiles had to wait a full 20 years for the director’s next feature only heightened the anticipation and burnished his indie reputation.
His 2011 film, The Tree of Life (starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn), was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards, a fact that still confounds this critic, who found the movie incomprehensible and pretentious. Nevertheless, A-list actors flock to his latest projects, and some critics still await Malick’s films with tremendous interest.
Knight of Cups, with Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and a host of other familiar faces (you can’t really call what they do in this acting; it’s more like posing), may finally dampen that inexplicable adoration. Ostensibly the exploration of a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter searching for love and meaning through a string of romantic relationships (though I only know that from the production notes, not the impossible-to-follow screenplay), Cups is an astonishingly self-indulgent and opaque cinematic exercise. Its brief moments of beauty are completely overwhelmed by the frustrating multiple narrators, purposefully inscrutable story, and capricious editing. The film feels more like the navel-gazing clap-trappery of a self-important grad student than the work of a seasoned filmmaker.
One can only assume that Malick is searching for some new philosophy of film narrative, but Knight of Cups and its predecessor, The Tree of Life, are compelling evidence, at least to me, that he hasn’t yet found it.
The title is a cryptic reference to the tarot; in fact, the film is divided into chapters that all bear titles of tarot cards. The Knight of Cups Reversed indicates “a situation which was initially incredibly appealing, romantic and exciting but which later turns out to be something very different, and one walks away feeling quite disappointed.” Sadly, that description is more apt than Malick might wish.