At what point does an auteur’s “signature style” cross over into becoming a game of directorial Mad Libs? That’s the question I wrestled with for most of Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” a typically gorgeous effort from the reclusive filmmaker that nonetheless employs his trademarks—shots following characters from behind and hushed voiceover the most recognizable among them—to such excess that it feels utterly mechanical. This is not to say that Malick has not been steadfast in his approach before, just that “Knight of Cups” may represent the point at which his song goes from sounding catchy to being overplayed.
To a degree, “Knight of Cups” is the victim of timing. If Malick has made the film before “To the Wonder,” the prior effort in which he doubled down on his stylistic conventions, then perhaps I would be raving about its artistry. Following the career-high “The Tree of Life,” which was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of a movie, the filmmaker’s aesthetic and aural fixations felt fresh when applied to the considerably more intimate story of one man’s romances. “Knight of Cups,” about another man’s romances, lacks the same sense of re-contextualization of Malick’s formal innovations, and as such, come across as the opposite of innovative: gnawing, even self-parodying at times.
The film’s repetitive structure doesn’t help matters, given that each time it circles back to find its depressed Hollywood screenwriter protagonist Rick (Christian Bale) with yet another new woman, we are reminded that Malick is about to do the same thing over again. And again. And again. Yes, this construction underscores the loose narrative that he explores in “Knight of Cups”—focusing on the banality, superficiality, and redundancy of Hollywood—but as Malick does so in a such plainly exhaustive fashion, we’re left to wonder whether his worldview is really any better at this point.
That may seem like a damning critique, but it comes from a place of respect and admiration. There’s no question Malick is one of the most technically adept filmmakers working, especially paired with his now-regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. This is precisely the problem here: he’s too vital a creator to spend time repeating himself. There’s enough good stuff floating around in “Knight of Cups” for its waste to come as a crushing blow. Each time I admired the roving camera or the actors’ ability to experiment without the constraint of much dialogue—Imogen Poots is especially captivating with her penetrating eyes—I was soon met with another pointless shot of Christian Bale roaming Death Valley just because Malick really likes that shot.
For all the conversation in the press about the liberties of Malick’s process—no script, hours upon hours of footage, actors left entirely on the cutting room floor because they didn’t ultimately fit his vision—his predilections have become so clear by now that he might as well be religiously adhering to a template. What good is experimentation when it is done in service of a product that is inherently predictable? “Knight of Cups” cannot exactly be called a slog because it is, like it or not, another dazzling example of Malick’s craftsmanship: the affluence of Los Angeles has seldom been more strikingly captured onscreen. But unlike the filmmaker’s seminal works, it completely fails at illumination.