I have always found the use of the word ‘Marmite’, when describing an artistic phenomenon, a little lazy. It strikes me as a bit of a cop out. It fails to really say anything substantial and allows the user a sort of critical breakout clause from the object of his/her opinion; “Some will love it, others will hate it, so what does it matter what I think?” However, its usefulness can’t be denied when it comes to Terrence Malick.
Malick has always been a ‘Marmite’ director, churning out opuses to the sound of evangelical praise and dissenting groans, and little in between. His recent outing Tree of Life inspired the typical extremes of opinion you would expect– it topped many critics’ film of the year lists, whilst also being rejected as boring pretentious twaddle by others. Tree of Life remains one of my most loved films to this day, and yet with Knight of Cups I feel as if I have seen the sort of self-indulgent, listless, and frustratingly meandering film that the trenchant critics of The Tree of Life saw.
Knight of Cups is the story of Rick (Christian Bale) a comedy writer living in present-day Santa Monica. He is in a rut, longing for change and something more, in spite of being the most highly sought after writer in Hollywood. He resorts to opulent parties and cavorts with beautiful women as a means of abating the existential void, forever haunted by the shadow of his past looming over him and his beautiful modernist apartment near the beach. All of his relationships are transitory, his previous marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and his extra-marital affair with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) both ending on account of his recklessness and self-absorption. Malick begs us to sympathise with his protagonist as he drives around Sunset Boulevard, the roof of his convertible down, declaring his catalogue of first world problems in bitty and ostentatious voiceovers.
Knight of Cups constitutes Malick’s slip into self-parody. In many ways, it feels like a crude imitation of his own inimitable work. The richly stylised and oneiric cinematic feel, the beautiful shots and camera angles, the sparse dialogue, supplemented by philosophical and disjointed voiceovers. It’s all there. What’s absent is the heart and the drive. It seems nothing more than a montage of Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography and invocations of canonical literature and folkloric imagery, all of which unfortunately fail to make up for a lack of substance and plot.
And yet perhaps that’s the point. Malick has never been narratively driven. His films frequently focus on a skeletal plotline, fleshed out with breathtaking visuals and the simple yet probing philosophies for which he has become notorious. Perhaps the narrative sparseness, the fleeting montage-like beauty of the camera work, and the relative shallowness of the material all serve as allegorical vehicles for life in L.A.: vapid, transient and hollow. Perhaps that is also why the characters are seemingly incapable of standing still, frenetically pacing to and fro, even when engaging in the most banal conversations; so affected are they by the explosive energy of the city that they are physically compelled to express it. Though digressing into philosophical dissections does not detract from the fact that it is, frankly, rather annoying and dull to watch.
In spite of Malick’s Marmite-y stature as a director, I will still continue to meet word of a new film with excitement. It is, however, excitement mixed with trepidation, my previously resolute faith in Malick hanging precariously by a thread. I will never personally fail to be impressed by his visual sensibilities, but please, Terrence, give us a little something more than that. For old times’ sake.
Words by George Washbourn