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Roy Anker

The Knight's Dark Night

Malick, catching the soul in motion.

The opening words are more than strange, especially in an American film, even if it were of the come-to-Jesus sort. Eerie and archaic, and from, of all places, the beginning of John Bunyan's cranky Puritan allegory The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). They could as well, though, and perhaps more aptly, come from the first lines of Dante's Divine Comedy, where the narrator finds himself in midlife grievously "astray in a dark wood … in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled" (Seamus Heaney, trans.). Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups has neither Bunyan's pilgrim Christian astray and beset in England, nor Dante in the brambles of Tuscany, but instead hugely successful screenwriter Rick (another Christian, as in Bale) lost in the sunny wilds of garish, star-drenched Hollywood. Apparently settings and eras change but not the human circumstance. Midway in his life's journey, Rick has it all: fame, money, women, and power, yet with all of this he simply drifts, and drifts, aimless and empty, from party to party, woman to woman, and concrete LA to stark desert, haunted all the while by one dead brother, another quite alive and volatile (Wes Bentley), and a roiling, guilt-sodden father fixed on figuring everything out (Brian Dennehy). Loss and loss, and then some. And this Rick fellow writes comedy?

Here's the rub: most reviewers will tell you it's Malick's filmmaking that has gotten lost. In their account, Malick has ventured far into the netherlands of artiness and obscurity, and the result is self-indulgent mush. Apparently, while appealing up-front, as in trailers, with ample sugar on top (all those AAA-list stars eager to work with Malick), the films have become increasingly shapeless, quirky, and close to inert. Indeed, with Knight of Cups, even one-time enthusiasts have gone full-scale negative. The New York Times' A. O. Scott, perhaps the country's best film critic, praised Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) with a lavish dose of "astonishment and admiration," ...

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