Knight of Cups ★★★

My 700th review

So. Here I am approaching one of the most divisive films of the year, directed by one of the most divisive directors working today, Terrence Malick. Malick is part of a select group of filmmakers who I'd credit as being partially responsible for my love and appreciation of cinema. About five, six years ago, in the days when I would devour multiple movies a day, eager to further immerse myself in film knowledge, it was movies like Days of Heaven, The New World and the The Thin Red Line that captured my imagination.

Back then, I would take day trips with my mother on weekends to New York City, where we would see indie films that wouldn't come to our area until several weeks later. One of these films was The Tree of Life and I will never forget the wonder and awe that I experienced in the theater on that day. I'll also never forget the visibly split feelings of the audience. It was a nearly packed house and when the credits rolled several groans and displeased sighs were let out, as half of the crowd rose immediately and grumbled amongst themselves about how awful it was. As these filmgoers left, several dozen others (myself included) remained seated, still transfixed and silently staring at the screen, haunted by the ghosts of the majestic opus we'd just witnessed together.

Two years later brought Malick's follow-up: To the Wonder. I went to the theater, wary of the mixed reviews but prepared to revel in the fruits wrought by this director's singular vision. But the experience was not so magical.

And now, we have Malick's latest, which continues his trend of moving farther and farther into abstract territory. With all the conflicting reactions in mind, I had no idea what to expect in terms of how I would react, but I had hope that it would be an improvement over his last.

As with most films this divisive, I find myself somewhere in the middle, neither fully disliking the film, nor singing its praises, I think Knight of Cups is better than his last effort, but I feel distanced from it.

First, there is something to be said about Malick's visual sensibilities and unconventional storytelling. While it is true that Knight of Cups is not a plot-driven film, there is a weird sort-of-structure built into its non-linear collage-like editing style. The rudiments of character and plot may have drifted away, but the outlines of ideas are sketched using actors as ciphers and landscapes as poetic punctuation. For this alone, the film is fascinating to watch.

However, I cannot deny that I found it quite tiresome after awhile. It wasn't the aesthetic, rather my fatigue came from the apparent repetition of concepts and visuals.

This is a film about a man lost in a maze of parties and palm trees. He returns to the same bottomless, yet empty sources of pleasure and contemplates the missing piece — the pearl, as the film references from the Acts of Thomas — that will deliver him from his hedonistic faux-paradise. Hollywood (and Vegas) serves as the obvious backdrop for this spiritual journey and at every turn, our main character encounters many women introduced as goddesses of different stripes. They float in and out of the picture, whispering about redemption, pain, release, freedom and other things.

As you can see, it's nearly impossible to talk about this film without resorting to florid conceptual descriptions. It suggests a deeply involved thematic framework, but while watching the film, I never felt like it was saying very much of interest. The findings of the protagonist's "journey" don't seem all that insightful and Malick's insistence on repeating certain visual tropes of his (characters feeling and caressing each other as they wander through public and private spaces, frolicking on the beach, numerous shots of the horizon and the sun, etc.) is frustrating, as these repetitions accomplish very little and come off as vacuous navel-gazing.

Ultimately then, I'm not sure where I stand with this film. On the one hand, it's completely different from anything else out there and expands upon a continually evolving (and increasingly influential) filmmaking style that I find somewhat revolutionary. But, I can't escape a lingering stench of redundancy, shallowness and diluted symbolism. As always, I appreciate Malick's sincerity and ambition, and I'm certainly more positive than negative, but something about the experience just doesn't sit right with me.

Oh and Eli, if you're reading, I hope we can still be friends. ;)

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