Although Terrence Malick's following has dwindled to a few diehard film critics and movie geeks, the writer/director keeps churning out features in this fertile third act of his career. They all look great, thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's flawless cinematography, Jack Fisk's rich production design, and the most attractive actors Hollywood has to offer. But Malick's increasing disinterest in narrative and his fondness for stilted voiceovers have turned many away.
Well, I'm one of that dwindled following, and for what it's worth, I can say that, while it's not as strong as The New World, I enjoyed Knight of Cups a bit more than Malick's previous two outings, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder.
Like those films, Knight of Cups is apparently inspired by a chapter in Malick's own life. In the late '60s/early '70s, before he went off to direct his first feature Badlands, Malick worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. If we are to accept Knight of Cups as autobiographical, those days were filled with wine, women, and song, but Malick was unfulfilled, forever on the periphery, never actually belonging. And so it is with Knight of Cups' protagonist Rick (Christian Bale), experiencing the same ennui in 2016 – or, rather, 2012, when the movie was shot. (Malick is famous for taking forever to edit the hours of footage he shoots.)
There isn't much here besides gorgeous footage of Bale wandering around downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the beach, occasionally interacting with his bullying father, his hotheaded brother, and various romantic interests. Yet it engaged me more than Malick's last two films, as it eschews the spiritual mumbo jumbo that rendered those films so pretentious and whittles the voiceover down to a tolerable level. And Bale is certainly a more soulful actor than To the Wonder's wooden Ben Affleck.
Perhaps I liked Knight of Cups because I too am a frustrated screenwriter who doesn't fit in with Hollywood, even if I never experienced a fraction of the partying and womanizing that Rick does. But there's more to the film than that. Above all, Malick and crew have a knack for capturing the fractured essence of Los Angeles, accurately rendering it as a city both alluring and lonesome, sexy and sad. (I took a walk around West LA after the end credits rolled, and felt like I was still in the film.)
But that's just me. For most, Knight of Cups will be a boring montage of beautiful shots that amounts to very little. Yet I suspect that this aimless quality is Malick's point, since we can assume that Rick, like Malick, accomplished nothing of substance in Hollywood, and had to move on to find his calling. But if you're not interested in examining Malick's life, you probably won't find anything worthwhile here.