If you always suspected Hollywood was a den of vice and degradation, you are about to be vindicated by no less an auteur than Terrence Malick. His everyman screenwriter has been led astray by the hedonism Tinsel Town offers. Malick riffs on Pilgrim’s Progress, The Hymn of the Pearl, and Fellini’s 8½ while searching for higher meaning in Knight of Cups (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
The screenwriter’s name is “Rick,” but we only know that from the closing credits. Not a lot of names get bandied about in Cups and dialogue is rather sparse in general. Instead, we watch Rick’s life flash by in snippets better measured in seconds than minutes. He is the Pilgrim or the “Son of the King of Kings,” who found worldly success, but lost sight of his values. However, he has not forgotten his family. In fact, they are another cross to bear. His relationship with his devout but guilt-wracked father is strained, but reparable. Unfortunately, his unstable brother Barry is apparently a lost soul. He will also have relationships with a number of attractive women, but it is often hard to tell when he moves onto someone new, because of Malick’s insistence on filming the backs of characters’ heads.
Aesthetically, Cups might just be Malick’s most maddening film yet—and that is quite a heavy statement. Yet, what is really frustrating is the extent to which he undermines his own challenging ideas. This is not a sterile exercise in style at the expense of substance. Malick is one of the very few filmmakers working today who seriously grapples with issues of faith and an ostensibly disinterested God in a serious, mature, and non-kneejerk manner. He most definitely does so again in Cups.
In fact, the very best moments directly explore man’s spiritual yearning. Making the most of his fleeting screen time, Armin Mueller-Stahl delivers a shockingly powerful Christian apologia as Father Zeitlinger. Likewise, the late Peter Matthiesson (essentially playing himself) delivers a potent lesson in Zen Buddhism. “I can only teach you one thing: this moment,” he tells Rick. Yet, instead of letting these significant moments breathe, so we can properly digest them, Malick continues his MTV-style rapid editing, moving to the next stage of Rick’s life, practically at the speed of light.
Even though he is in most of the scenes, Christian Bale perversely hardly gets a chance to do any acting. Malick’s actors really have to make an impression quickly if they stand any chance of standing out. In addition to the wonderful Mueller-Stahl and sage-like Matthiesson, Brian Dennehy projects appropriate gravitas and poignant humility as Rick’s father, Joseph (remember, that’s a Biblical name). It is also amusing to watch Antonio Banderas essentially reprise his role from Nine under the persona of Tonio, the Hollywood playboy (he even looks like he is wearing the same suit). Problematically, the women in Rick’s life are almost used like props, but Cate Blanchett shows some forcefulness and gumption as his ER doctor ex-wife, Nancy. Presumably, that is why it did not work out between the two of them.
Cups could have possibly been a truly great film, but Malick’s approach is way too unfettered in its Malickness. Even as its wise men explicitly tell us to more fully live in the present, it hurtles ahead, like a cheetah suffering from ADD. This is a shame, because there is wisdom within its frames. Still, this is not a film that can be easily dismissed. Indeed, it is quite an important work when viewed in dialogue with Malick’s prior films, but as a discrete screening experience, it is bizarrely agitated and off-putting. Viewers who really want to wrestle with a film will find their match in Knight of Cups, but the more conventional should probably take a pass. Still, even now it defies any clear-cut rendering of judgment. For the auteur’s adventurous admirers, Knight of Cups opens this Friday (3/4) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine and AMC Loews Lincoln Square.