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Knight of Cups

(2015) ** 1/2 R
118 min. Broad Green Pictures. Director: Terrence Malick. Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman.

/content/films/4896/1.jpgFittingly, the latest film from auteur Terence Malick (The Tree of Life) has earned rapturous praise and frustrated ire, for two things are equally certain about Knight of Cups: it is a work of art, and it’s not terribly accessible or, therefore, relatable. With Knight of Cups, writer-director Malick takes a deep, empathetic plunge into the ennui of an extremely privileged white guy, and even the director’s dedicated enthusiasts must confess that the song remains much the same as his recent efforts.

Malick has again attracted a Kubrickian stable of movie stars and serious actors to roam around his cinematic nature preserve under the watchful eye of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki won the Best Cinematography Oscar in 2016, 2015, and 2014, so attention must be paid; having also shot Malick’s last three films (To the Wonder, The Tree of Life, The New World—not to mention his already-completed next one), Lubezki has developed a simpatico process, a marriage of style, with his introverted director. Certainly, Knight of Cups is nothing if not beautifully shot.

And many will say nearly that about it: that it is nothing but beautifully shot. Malick’s controlled chaos of production finds its form in rigorous filmic poetry capturing the bare ruined choirs of innocence lost: on a corrupted planet Earth and within a man of promise. That man, Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale), long ago lost his joie de vivre. In the recesses of his mind are depressive displeasure with work, faded love (with doctor wife Cate Blanchett), compulsive desire (with a succession of women, including Natalie Portman), and family tragedy (spawning disconnected relationships to grizzled father Brian Dennehy and wastrel brother Wes Bentley).

Rick has lost his way since his early-childhood joy and wonder, and his father talks of being "hungry...longing for something other...without knowing what it is." For his part, as he saunters through opulence (what humanity has built up, contrasted to nature) and recalls past trysts, Rick self-diagnoses, "I spent thirty years not living life, but ruining it—for myself, and others. I can't remember a man I wanted to be." All of these thoughts and memories seem to get shaken loose by an earthquake, a classic Malick-style metaphor for the disease between the urban 21st-century man and the natural world.

Malick’s construction of sight and sound here is considered: the titular tarot metaphor harmonizes with Christian text (“Psalm 104”) and allegory (John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, heard in a snippet read by John Gielgud), and ancient Greek philosophical dialogue (Plato’s The Phaedrus, read by Charles Laughton). Visual motifs abound, from the gestural (drifting, crawling) to the aspirational (birds imitated by kites, helicopters, and planes; an ocean mocked by swimming pools and the barely wet Los Angeles River). And to preserve auditory subtleties and grandeur, exhibitors get advised, “For optimal sound reproduction, the producers of this film recommend that you play it loud.”

As per Malick’s house style, dialogue is kept to a ruthless minimum (I’m fairly certain Bale, as the protagonist, never says a word of it), while thoughts get lavish, if whispered, voice-over. The existential questions get real, explicitly and implicitly, about modern life and its empty vessels that insidiously enable us (from the escapist car of a televised freeway chase to the knight’s cup, in the myth, that forces amnesia). But for all its thrumming profundity, Knight of Cups has just as much sleepwalking self-parody: all of the actors’ pacing and arm-flapping and gazing off into the distance suggests, as much as an art film, the world’s longest prescription drug commercial.

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