John DeCarli’s review published on Letterboxd:
There are still many thoughts to sort out on a rewatch...
What strikes me most watching Knight of Cups is the innovative and malleable filmmaking methodology Malick and Chivo have developed over the last few years, refined with each new film. The restless searching that Malick has infused into each part of the process has clearly had an impact on his productivity and curiosity, allowing him to pursue ideas quickly and effectively and to stay nimble enough to catch life and magic whenever and wherever they happen. It's truly one of the most exciting developments in recent cinema. If Knight of Cups perhaps feels like it's doing more searching than finding compared to his other recent films, I can certainly forgive it for the many sensual and philosophical affects Malick emblazons on the screen.
Unfortunately, along with this repeatable methodology Malick has articulated, comes the same repeatable critical discussion of Malick. A disconcerting number of critics whom I would ordinarily respect are completely dismissive of Knight of Cups, without seeming to even discuss the film itself, just the "typical Malick stuff." It's baffling to me how so many critics are incapable of approaching his films on their own terms. It's perfectly reasonable to not like the film, but calling it incoherent, pointing out a lack of narrative or character development, or arguing that "the emperor has no clothes" represents a refusal to meet the film on its level.
I believe that Knight of Cups, like all of Malick's films, is perfectly intelligible once you submit to its pace, rhythms and textures. If you're able to parse the new cinematic language Malick has developed over the past decade, approaching each new film is quite straightforward.
Knight of Cups, like all of Malick's films, is about a restless searching. It's the quest of a lost soul from a state of spiritual emptiness to a reintegration and reengagement with life, and therefore with something bigger and greater than himself. With that and a few basic signposts in mind, it becomes simple to let Malick's thought-images wash over you.
A few other random notes:
- It's interesting that Knight of Cups immediately feels less reliant on music, while also relying even less on dialogue than even To the Wonder. Though sound is often transporting and overwhelming in Malick's films, he has refined his methodology to the point of a silent film purity.
- I'm extremely impressed and excited to see Malick's willingness to experiment with digital photography and a host of other visual textures. Some images even reminded me of Godard's In Praise of Love, with saturated and contrasty colors standing in for potent memories of the past. Lots of wide-angle shots seemed new as well.
- Christian Bale is in some ways the perfect Malick actor. Unlike Affleck in To the Wonder, he doesn't seem to palpably fight against his application as a brooding, emotive vessel for Malick's ideas. Malick has long used "figures" instead of characters -- people as stand-ins for ideas and states of being -- and a good Malick actor needs to be completely free and open to allow this transformation to take place. (This, again, makes critics look foolish for expecting traditional character development.)
- Though Malick has visualized dream-spaces before, they seemed particularly fertile in Knight of Cups, specifically in the sequences with Brian Dennahy (who's fantastic). Malick and production designer Jack Fisk have an amazing facility with selecting elements from a film's specific milieu to inform a true, literal, physical space to represent thoughts or dreams or subconscious elements to his figures. Tree of Life had the treehouse-like space with the tall man and an underwater living room; Knight of Cups places sequences in eerily empty Hollywood backlots and trashed and desolate interiors, suggesting the cavalier impermanence and artificiality of LA.
- Though all of Malick's films, to me, are rapturous experiences, I was less emotionally moved by Knight of Cups. I think it's his only film that feels a bit like an incomplete thought, a rumination on a universal theme of listlessness that may not be germane to this specific figure portrayed by Bale. It's unclear whether Malick offers Rick a way out of his malaise, or whether he ultimately does transcend it. This did make the ending feel a bit arbitrary.
- This is a truly remarkable film.
Also, please take a look at my detailed piece on how Malick's production methodology influences his cinematic language on FilmCapsule.com.