“Oh, you think Affleck is playing ‘Sad Batman?‘ I’ll show you Sad Batman” — Christian Bale, probably.
The past few years, film legend Terrence Malick has been turning out a semi-autobiographical trilogy of experimental films, starting with Tree of Life in 2011 and To the Wonder in 2012. This string of movies concludes with Knight of Cups, a tarot card-themed exploration of existential boredom in Hollywood. It’s divided into chapters, almost all of which are named after one of the major arcana and represent a person or relationship in the life of main character Rick (Bale), the eponymous Knight of Cups. They are The Moon, Della (Imogen Poots), one of Rick’s girlfriends; The Hanged Man, his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy); The Hermit, Tonio (Antonio Banderas), a philanderer who views women as different fruit flavors; Judgment, Nancy (Cate Blanchett), Rick’s ex-wife; The Tower, Helen (Freida Pinto), a model who encourages Rick to stop living in his dream world; The High Priestess, Karen (Teresa Palmer), a stripper who encourages Rick to remain in his dream world; Death, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a married woman with whom Rick has an affair and possibly impregnates; and Freedom, Isabel (Isabel Lucas), the last woman he’s with in the movie.
To a certain extent, if you’ve seen one of the movies in this series, you’ve seen them all. Before they’re put together, movies are just a handful of moving pictures with accompanying audio files. The art is made and the meaning is created by laying the audio over the pictures and cutting between pictures. Most of the time, filmmakers use this to create a traditional scene — the sound corresponds to the pictures, and when the pictures cut they cut to related pictures. They build a film and a recognizable narrative in this way.
Not so in this series. One picture is completely separate from the next, and the sound is completely divorced from the visuals. At face value, the film is a cacophony of unrelated sights and sounds. Any traditional narrative is thrown out the window. The experiment of these films is creating a much more abstract story. They’re all very different stories — supposedly all different phases of Malick’s own life story, though the filmmaker is famously reclusive so this is kind of conjecture — but they all operate on the same subconscious level.
All three have sharply divided critics, though Tree of Life is being recognized more and more as one of the best films ever made, but if you only see one, go with Knight of Cups. It’s the best of the three for a couple reasons — one, it’s the most thoroughly executed. The other two lose their nerve and break down into traditional scenes at certain points, but Knight of Cups stays completely abstract the whole way through. Second, the subject matter is less specific and more sympathetic. Tree of Life deals with Malick’s childhood and struggles with Christianity and To the Wonder very directly recreates two of his marriages, but Knight of Cups is less about Malick specifically and more about feelings of restlessness and realizing the kind of overwhelming love and happiness you were promised as a child may not actually exist. The film cuts astonishingly well to its own core, creating a portrait of a horrifically depressed man not through a story or thoughts, but entirely through feelings.
It’s a big if, though. This movie is difficult to appreciate, requiring a long attention span and a wide open mind. It will be interesting to film lovers looking for something different, but not many others.
Broken down to just pictures and sounds, it’s essentially two hours of shaky hand-held shots of Christian Bale being sad. It’s easy to see people disagreeing with this film.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Death is the worst thing to be afraid of — there’s no way to avoid it. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.