Once upon a time, the release of a new Terence Malick movie was an event. He had a knockout debut with Badlands in ’73 and took a long hiatus after his beautiful second film Days of Heaven in ’78, but Thin Red Line was worth the 20 year wait. The New World (2005) and Tree of Life (2011) were still impressive efforts with Malick moving his now familiar style forward, but with To The Wonder (2012) and now Knight of Cups, he seems to be trapped by his own style, habits and process.
If you saw To The Wonder, then you’ve pretty much seen Knight of Cups. This time Bale has taken Affleck’s place as Malick’s silently brooding protagonist. Malick’s films have truly entered self parody as it seems his cup of tricks is empty and he’s not sure what to do with himself. It’s easy to see this increased pace of output as what’s hurting the quality of the projects, but it could just be lack of inspiration. Despite some beautiful cinematography, his films have become tedious and self indulgent. Many felt this way about Tree of Life, but I believe there was substance there. I really loved the acid trip of a creation sequence and seeing the family through the years. There are brief moments of promise in Knight of Cups, but then it falls back into the same shots reused over and over as the film cannibalizes itself and past Malick works. Set in modern day LA, we also lose the additional magic of Malick’s period pieces. Ever the artistic philosophy student who refuses to conform, Malick is at his best when he’s working within some kind of concrete idea, not off in la la land.
As Malick’s been shooting more in recent years with a “who’s who” of high profile actors, more stories have surfaced about what it’s like working with the most mysterious director in the industry. One story in particular that was recently published in Business Insider had comedian Thomas Lennon describe his day on Knight of Cups as “an absolutely batshit crazy day” where he was told nothing about his character and was a given no lines, just a piece of paper from Malick that said ‘There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.’ Why get comedians like Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Kroll if you’re not going to let them be funny and reduce them to glorified background performers? If he’s not going to write a script for these actors to work off of, then filling every frame with aimless celebrities just gets distracting. Lennon says the long day was not without its frustrations, but that he would do it again. I believe he ended up with one line in the final film, but he was luckier than many actors who showed up that day thinking they were going to be in a Terrence Malick movie.
So Malick basically improvises his films with extremely cryptic direction given to his actors. Never one to be precious about dialogue, Malick’s films have always been more about the imagery, but only recently have his actors started to literally looked lost in his scenes, awkward and at a loss of what to do with themselves. Clearly some the industry’s best actors are still up to the challenge, perhaps it’s now considered a right of passage for serious performers who grew up around the mysticism of Malick. Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, and Imogen Poots play the women who drift in and out of the playboy’s life, while his brother and father (Wes Bentley and Brian Dennehy) deal with a death in the family… sound familiar?
Bale comes off like a terrible improv partner, stonewalling everyone while they try to make a scene out the strange circumstances. He was either instructed to say very little, or those are just the takes Malick chose, either way it’s an infuriating device that really distances us from the main character. Most of the dialogue is inaudible anyway due to Malick’s trademark disconnected voiceover, but sometimes, just to fuck with us some more, he’ll take the minimal dialogue there is, the dialogue these actors are clearly working hard to come up with, and fade it in and out like a kid playing with the volume knob.
I understand why Malick needs stars like Bale. They bring money to the project, which is how he can afford to take as much time as he wants to go through his process. On paper, this looks like an incredible ensemble cast (Antonio Banderas, Nick Offerman, Kevin Corrigan…) but most of them only show up for a scene or two and probably worked on the film for no more than a few days. Anyone going to this movie for the cast will be very disappointed.
Despite the increased output, I think Malick is taking too much time with these projects, indulging in the shooting possibilities and freedom the digital era has brought and taking advantage of his mystique by roping these actors into his half baked home movie. Now he worries less than ever about scripting and can just shoot as much as he likes and have some poor editor help him make sense of it in the cutting room. Ultimately it all ends up feeling like the same experiment with increasingly watered down results.
The film is at its best when Malick is shooting non actors or artists in their element, such as dancers, aerial performers, models and installations at an art gallery. Malick should really just go full Koyaanisqatsi and make a documentary film like Godfrey Reggio’s incredible piece. He’s already shooting very much in that style, and if he’s not going to follow a script then he should commit fully to observing life instead of trying to create it.
So the outlook is bleak for Terrence Malick’s next (apparently already completed) film, Weightless, which also stars Christian Bale as a successful person with multiple love interests, but I’m still holding out hope for Voyage of Time, the documentary we’ve been hearing about for years.