The Seattle press screening of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is happening next week during my office hours at Seattle Pacific. That’s the problem with being a film critic but also being, you know… employed. The screenings for press are often held midday, when I can’t leave the office. So I’m going to miss the movie that Looking Closer readers most want me to review in 2016.

(If any publicists are reading this, hey — if I had a screener link, this Malick fan would be publishing a full review right now. That’s how I reviewed To the Wonder, anyway.)

That’s alright. I like watching Malick late at night because there’s something dreamlike about slipping into the current of his distinctive style — the challenge of his poetic juxtapositions; the movement of Emmauel Lubezki’s cameras, which seem to be guided by wind; the tempestuous weather of his musical score; the mesmerizing murmur of intertwined interior monologues.

And, since a tidal wave of reviews by reliable and insightful critics is currently flooding film sites across the Internet, I’m tempted to take my time and write something different than a review after the surge subsides. I’ll until I’ve marinated in it for a while and then write about what it opens up to me in my own life. Malick films tend to have that effect.

"Knight of Cups"

Maybe I’ll find that I relate to Rick (played by Christian Bale) — showbiz pilgrim making melancholy progress through the flash and dazzle of a sex- and success-obsessed Los Angeles. His lifestyle’s nothing like mine, but as someone who lives in a whirlwind of art and entertainment, I can imagine the women that lure and intrigue him being like the art that beckons to me, often with false promises of profundity. Or maybe I’ll find that this is a greater departure from the kind of work that I consider Malick’s best — the films that give their characters distinct and human voices instead of vague philosophizing.

Who knows? My favorite critics are more divided over this one than they are over most films. Once again, Malick has inspired some, unsettled some, and exasperated others.

Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com — clearly aware that his mentor Roger Ebert wrote his very last review in a state of rapture with Terrence Malick’s last movie, To the Wonder — picks up where Ebert left off with Knight of Cups: enamored, enchanted, inspired. He calls it “a film that teaches you how to watch it,” and then proceeds to to write his review in the film’s meandering interior-monologue style. He calls it

…one of the most committed examples of the principle “form follows function” that you’ll see—so much so that many viewers will find it impenetrable and intolerable.

The whole movie is a collection of ellipses of different sorts, a series of suspended moments, cordoned-off spectacles, fleeting instants that could be beautiful or emptily pretty, meaning-filled or meaningless.

Everything, everyone, every place, seems disconnected here; as superficially lovely as “Knight of Cups” is, it’s Malick’s bleakest film in some ways. Treat the world as it deserves to be treated, Rick’s father says. There are no principles, only circumstances. Nobody’s home. The lushness of the imagery contradicts him, but without shutting him down.

He acknowledges — somewhat incredulously — that many if not most critics will be more frustrated than inspired.

Justin Chang, at Variety, acknowledges this as well:

Those who have had their fill of the director’s impressionistic musings will find his seventh feature as empty as the lifestyle it puts on display; for the rest of us, there’s no denying this star-studded, never-a-dull-moment cinematic oddity represents another flawed but fascinating reframing of man’s place in the modern world.

Chang is particularly aggravated by “the degree to which Bale’s magnetism has been drained away here.” But he adds:

… Malick’s view remains a deeply and unapologetically Christian one; Rick’s story may echo that of the lost knight, but it also has obvious roots in the parable of the prodigal son, and throughout “Knight of Cups” you can just about make out the voice of a father patiently, insistently calling his wayward child home. It’s that instinctive compassion that keeps the film from turning crushingly didactic, along with the myriad aesthetic pleasures afforded by the Malick’s typically dense layering of image, sound and music.

Knight of CupsGlenn Kenny, at Some Came Running, says he’s “appalled”:

I admired The New World, I loved Tree Of Life, I was challenged by and ultimately admired To The Wonder, and all the while I recognized a quality, maybe I could call it an undercurrent, within Malick’s work that had the potential to trip it/him up very badly, and in Knight Of Cups, I thought, it did. This is (part of) what I wrote to the representative of the film who had invited me to see it those months ago: “So. I thought the movie beautiful, which is almost a given, but I also found it frustratingly evasive. Maybe it’s because the milieu is so specifically Hollywood but I felt that the elliptical, indirect narrative style felt like a kind of a cheat. I also felt that the supposed spiritual emptiness experienced by the lead character was overly aestheticized, and there was some weird special-pleading male privilege in his flitting from beautiful woman to beautiful woman and yet always feeling so empty and pursued by the ghosts of his failed familial male relationships. So I was kind of brought down by the whole thing.”

A.O. Scott at The New York Times agrees, even if he wasn’t as fond of To the Wonder as Kenney:

… Mr. Malick has always been more interested in states of being than in cause and effect. His philosophical temperament and his sensual disposition can produce work of haunting, almost ecstatic power — I certainly feel that way about “The Tree of Life” — but in “Knight of Cups,” as in “To the Wonder,” the deployment of beauty strikes me as more evasive than evocative.

And the deployment of beauties is more exploitative than anything else. The nameless, voiceless, topless women — whose lithe bodies at once symbolize Rick’s existential quest and distract him from it — might as well be premium-cable eye candy. Like Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” “Knight of Cups” settles into a lukewarm bath of male self-pity, a condition perhaps more deserving of satire than sanctification.

Ah.. but maybe not? Sophie Monks Kaufman writes at Little White Lies:

Existentialism from a rich playboy makes it tonally comparable to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty but this also an absorbing study of the stresses of being a womaniser. Really. …

A cynic might say that Malick has filtered the objectification of women through arthouse sensibilities, but he is a step ahead. This is the story of a man whose drug of choice is women. The way he sees them is necessarily at a distance. This is his whole issue. Malick has crafted the perfect philosophical basis for obsessively filming the world’s most beautiful woman in a way that is sublimely tasteful and reverent. All the while something is scratching at Rick from beneath.  … As Rick leaves gracious ladies behind, the idea suddenly dawns that maybe the pearl is meaningful communication in all its painful self-interested candour.

Brett McCracken at Christianity Today says,

Knight’s impenetrably subjective posture (basically fragments of image-memories from Malick’s psyche) and resistance to “plot” is in a weird way the key to unlocking its mystery. If the film has a point, it is that “discerning a point” is harder than ever in a world where mediated experiences of “beauty” are more ubiquitous, accessible and customizable than ever, but less and less tied to rubrics of meaning.

And of the film’s cast of unclothed beauties he says,

This aspect of Knight, taken at face value, is almost enough for me to not recommend the film. The effect of the repetitive, intentionally indistinguishable sequence of Rick’s liaisons with women (certain shots, on beaches or in convertibles, are repeated with multiple women) is numbing, grotesque, squirm-inducing. … The audience becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Beauty shouldn’t be this sleazy, this empty, to the point that we want to slink in our seats, look away, or walk out.

But this is where Malick’s critique of Hollywood, as a sort of stand-in for the larger spiritual “searches” of mankind, comes into focus. … [Rick’s] in a dream world, half asleep, making no progress on his spiritual quest because the beauty that should be pointing him higher is instead luring him deeper into idolatry.

David Ehrlich at Slate begins with this: “What if the Entourage movie had been directed by Terrence Malick?…  Ari Gold … Johnny Drama … always you wrestle inside me.”

"Knight of Cups"

Then he expresses frustration with Malick’s increasingly steady focus on the search for meaning, which denies his films the surprise of “serendipity” that once graced his early masterpieces.

the problem isn’t that Malick is repeating himself—after all, the process of revisiting the same material every year is the bedrock of most theological study, and even true believers find it hard to remember Rick’s ultimate takeaway that suffering is an expression of God’s love. The problem is that Malick never forgets about the pearl. … Malick has moved from self-discovery to self-affirmation; he knows exactly what he’s looking for, and Knight of Cups, for all its splendor, made me wish that he could take a swig and forget.

Even farther out is Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic of Christianity Today. You can read her Tweeted responses at Storify. [Udpate: She might have written a full review for CT, but McCracken beat her to it.]

UPDATE #1: March 7

Elijah Davidson talks with Michael Wright at Reel Spirituality.

And Richard Brody at The New Yorker posts the most enthusiastic exaltation of the film I’ve encountered.

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