Everyone, even the greatest director, is entitled to one bad film. But it is still a shock to discover that Terrence Malick is capable of a rotten egg like Knight of Cups.
It presents Christian Bale as a successful Hollywood star, addicted to all that goes with money and power, who nevertheless has a troubled soul. His two female friends are Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. The former lives in the real world and can’t cope any longer with his. The latter is the embodiment of sensuality who cleaves to him like a beautiful clam.
All this takes place within the expensive fakery of Hollywood where nobody and nothing are quite what they seem. Outside is the real world indeed, halfway destroyed by man’s innate destructiveness.
There is hardly any screenplay apart from a voiceover now and then from Ben Kingsley. But there are a gigantic heap of swirling and often striking images as the star’s mental torture unfolds. Of course, the cinematography is splendid. But the flow never gets beyond telling us things that are fundamentally cliches—that the world’s innocence has been betrayed by the machinations of man.
This is art for art’s sake, and pretty tiresome to watch over two hours and a bit. There is so little in the way of a story and so little development of character that you begin to wonder what has happened to Malick, a precious talent if ever there was one. And what these good and usually eloquent actors are doing in this swingeing mess.
Earlier in the Festival, the generally imaginative Werner Herzog made a compromised hash of his film about Gertrude Bell. Here Malick deserts his story-telling powers for a kind of anarchic abstraction that sinks into bathos. One doesn’t know which is worse. But Knight of Cups takes the lead in this battered critic’s opinion.