I feel quite confident in saying that the world – and the cinematic audience at large – isn’t quite ready to fully appreciate the idiosyncratic stylings that characterize director Terrence Malick’s rather small body of work. Starting with Badlands in 1973 and ending with his most recent output of Knight of Cups in 2016, Mr. Malick has only put out seven films in 43 years. Instead of opting to take a lofty paycheck to direct a standard, easily defined studio genre movie, this stalwart filmmaker continually chooses to occasionally present to the world his narrowed artistic inspirations, efforts that are characterized by sparse dialogue, gliding shots of the minutiae of nature and man’s movements (lensed frequently by recent Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) and sparse plot points that could be summed up in one sentence or less.
Terrence Malick’s unique style of visual poetry isn’t for all walks of life, and his latest endeavor, Knight of Cups, makes no exception to this subjective rule. Knight centers around a disaffected Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) who is tired of the hedonistic Los Angeles façade of glamor that permeates his personal and professional life, prompting a slow-building existential crisis in which Bale attempts to find himself by finding women with which to copulate so that he can unconsciously distract himself from his initial goal of self-actualization. For Bale’s character, his own misguided actions constitute a never-ending cycle of voluntary misery which has little chance of ever being broken.
And it is this same self-reflective insistence on contemplating one’s own life through dialogue-free visuals that will cause most critics of this film to vehemently denounce Malick’s efforts. Knight of Cups, like most of Mr. Malick’s work since 2005’s The New World, is an exercise, an experiment, in guided meditation. No longer distracted by a fast-paced, plot-heavy narrative and witty dialogue, the audience’s mind is now free to wander from a self-imposed center as they are steered by the visuals onscreen. What the viewer experiences throughout this process will most certainly feel uncomfortable, and it will cause much of the audience to silently lash out at the filmmaker as if he has just put their rebellious minds in time out for two hours.
We distract ourselves with so much external stimuli to get through the day that forcing ourselves to be alone with our own thoughts in a darkened theater can be an excruciating experience. This pervasive feeling of discomfort is why meditation, in general, is rarely used among the American population. And yet, if we are able to shed our preconceived notions of a what feature film should look and sound like, there is an undercurrent of sublimation to be had, leaving us with an emotional punch to the gut wherein Bale’s despair and desire for wish fulfillment can be felt and experienced on an entirely visceral level, an emotional act of transcendence which is a rarity in the cinematic arts.
But perhaps the medium of a feature film is not in this movie’s best interests. I believe more viewers would be able to appreciate Mr. Malick’s historically experimental presentation in shorter, more easily digestible spurts. As Knight of Cups is broken up into distinct chapters within the film, it would be ideal for a cable network like HBO to present each chapter in 30 minute segments as a prestige miniseries, which would most definitely garner a slew of Emmy nominations due to the director’s pedigree.
Sadly, the world isn’t ready to commercially embrace a Terrence Malick feature film, but that doesn’t mean that this maverick director won’t stop trying to change minds and hearts by utilizing his influences of Robert Bresson, Derek Jarman, and Gus Van Sant to transport the audience to another plane of thought. And for that, I humbly thank him.
5 out of 5 stars.