Reactions to Terrence Malick’s work are extreme, divisive and entirely defensible, on both ends of the spectrum. Is his latest film, “Knight of Cups,” a gorgeous, meditative journey into the very nature of memory? Yes. Is it a pretentious, silly, nonsensical self-parody with nary a plot in sight? Well, you could say that, too.
Abandon narrative expectations as you experience Los Angeles through the eyes of a drifting, dejected screenwriter, played by Christian Bale, who lurks on the edge of lavish parties, receiving unwanted advice from people like Antonio Banderas, who is memorable as a charismatic Lothario. He also walks down streets lined with homeless men, discussing drugs with his brother, Wes Bentley, and they reminisce about their late brother. More than anything, he trails behind lithe beauties, including Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Imogen Poots, pondering the nature of desire.
Things become even more theatrical when we meet his father, Brian Dennehy, tortured by the loss of that son. His elegiac voiceover runs throughout the film, as if calling Bale’s character back to Earth from the otherworldly experience of Los Angeles. He paces through a dusty office, and appears to wash his hands in a sink full of blood.
This is not a movie where things happen in a realistic way. It’s more abstract, like a ballet, a perfume ad or a visual poem, but not one of those rhyming poems. No, it’s definitely a poem with completely haphazard punctuation and ranDom Capitalization (!).
The viewer can fall under the sensory spell of the images and words, and you can pick out lines from Bale’s character’s life story; he regrets many things about his relationship with his ex-wife, a doctor played by Cate Blanchett, and he has walked on the beach with many other extremely pretty women. But this spell is also too easily broken. Unlike Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which had some similar qualities and made more sense, “Knight of Cups” stretches the patience of even a person inclined to fall for the endless voiceover, meandering camera stuff.
There are too many random white loft spaces, too many concrete corridors down which Bale pursues a leggy woman in filmy clothing, and every time one of them turns to him while a voiceover spouts something enigmatic, it just seems inevitable they’ll say “Obsession: a new fragrance from Calvin Klein.” It’s worth experiencing for the cinematography, but “Knight of Cups” won’t convert Terrence Malick skeptics, and might even push fans to wonder if perhaps the emperor has nothing on after all. Is it pretty, or just pretty silly?
“Knight of Cups” is currently available to rent, and to stream on Hoopla, a free service from the Mobile Public Library.