Anyone can have an off day. After seeing Knight of Cups, I now understand why legendarily elusive director Terence Malick chose to have so few on days.
Malick is the high priest of art, his reputation forged on very few films since his 1973 debut Badlands (one of the finest first films ever – I feel a list coming on). Days of Heaven followed in 1978, with a gap of 20 years til the great The Thin Red Line. The New World came in 2005 and then Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or in 2011, an award as much as for what came before as for what was actually in front of mixed audiences at the time.
Right now, that looks like Malick’s last hint at greatness. His brand of magic hour photography and impressionistic, rambling narrative and cosmic exploration appear to have had their day in Knight of Cups, a film which looks like someone doing a two-hour, unfunny pastiche of a Malick movie.
Christian Bale plays Rick, a disillusioned LA screenwriter who fill his gnawing spiritual void with parties and women, six entirely fabricated and unformed beauties with whom he cavorts in the surf in Santa Monica and Malibu. There’s the kohl-eyed pixie played by Imogen Poots; the Armani-ad beauty and ER surgeon ex-wife played by Cate Blanchett; the insufferable Natalie Portman; a good-hearted stripper (Teresa Palmer); a fashion model played by the impossibly beautiful Freida Pinto; and another skinny blonde played by Isobel Lucas who might just set him on the right path.
Who gives a hoot for this man after 10 minutes is the real mystery. Malick meanders around parties at mansions (thrown by Antonio Banderas) where people mutter crap about money and screenplays; we zoom tastelessly into a stripper’s hot pants in a club and go to Vegas – seriously, who needs to see Malick’s view of Vegas?
An episode of Entourage or Californication has more depth and acuity than anything in Knight of Cups; La Dolce Vita or La Notte did urban alienation better over 50 years ago. I was utterly amazed at the triteness of Knight of Cups (the title is taken from one of the tarot cards Rick in which places his faith, before he seeks a priest and a guru.) Playing John Gielgud reading out The Pilgrim’s Progress and dropping a bit of Grieg, Arvo Part or Segovia into the soundtrack doesn’t make it art.
Look, there’s a lot of beauty here, in Emanuelle Lubezki’s camerawork, in a few sunsets and in the breathy monologues and snippets of conversation that Malick uses to build his vague narrative. But much of it looks like an Armani advert and the acting from the women is so silly as to be depressingly demeaning that a director would even make them do such ditzy nonsense – seriously, who waves their hands in the air as a convertible drives along, who really cavorts in the waves with their clothes on?
I wish I’d never seen Knight of Cups, because Malick on an off day is boring, turgid and out of touch, and I don’t want to know about it. I fear we might never take him seriously again.