Filmcore’s Coast-to-Coast Thoughts on “Knight of Cups,” a.k.a. “Christian Bale Goes To The Beach”

Last week, Filmcore’s Alex Kirschenbaum and Chris McKee saw the latest Terry Malick tone poem so you don’t have to. And both Filmcore scribes agree, “Knight of Cups” was a meandering mess of a movie — an all-around waste of its considerable talent. They exchanged several epic emails. Reading them now will be much more entertaining for you than watching “Knight of Cups,” I guarantee you.

Chris McKee:
Hey Alex! So I heard you saw the “Knight of Cups” premiere in LA with the cast and crew! Oh man, that must have been an interesting experience to say the least. Saw it the other night here in NYC. Here are my gut thoughts —

-Terrence Malick has totally gone off the deep end. He’s totally abandoned story in favor of creating cinema that is purely constructed by feeling. And I’m not against that as a concept. I love avant garde cinema when it’s great. But regardless of the structure, Malick doesn’t ground his ideas in any sort of reality. They’re just vague whispers off in the distance — just vague enough that Malick might not be saying anything at all.

-This movie (like most of Malick’s recent work,) ends up being a failure because in trying to say everything about the human experience, he ends up saying absolutely nothing.

-He’s making all these grand statements about nature, existence, religion, childhood, innocence, dealing with loss, dealing with failure, compromising one’s beliefs, love, relationships, etcetera etcetera, but at the end of the film did I learn anything new? Does Malick actually have any real point of view on the shared human experience more than just bland generalizations? Life is painful. I don’t need to watch depressed Christian Bale walking around in the desert for two hours to know that.

-Make a statement! Give me a new perspective! Show me something in a way I haven’t seen it before. Cinema at its best is an empathy machine. At the end of this film I didn’t empathize with Christian Bale. I didn’t empathize with anyone. And I should have, right? I’m human- I understand loss, failure, and life not meeting my expectations. But Malick never truly explores any of these ideas beyond their surface level. When Christian Bale looks sad, it does absolutely nothing to me, because that moment of sadness isn’t earned.

-You know, another thing that surprised me about this movie is how much of a perv-y guy Terrence Malick is. “Knight of Cups” is essentially just Christian Bale getting busy with a dream-team list of the most attractive women in hollywood. And I have no problem with exploring themes of sexuality on the silver screen, but the objectification here leaves a bad taste. Each woman — Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and Imogen Poots (all criminally underused) — is treated as some  ethereal angel with no discernible personality. They end up feeling like Malick’s sexual trophies on display. This movie just reeks of the point of view of an old, horny man.

Alex Kirschenbaum:
Hey Chris! I couldn’t agree more — Terrence Malick has completely lost his mind. Though I prefer narrative movies to non-narrative ones, I can stomach a quality abstract/avant-garde movie for sure. “Gummo” is one of my favorites, and post-“Gerry” Gus Van Sant. Harmony Korine and GVS both made their strongest flicks this century (“Spring Breakers” for the former, “Paranoid Park” for the latter), in my estimation, when they reigned their non-narrative tendencies in a bit, but still kept the stories simple, loose and somewhat abstracted, looping elliptically in on themselves while maintaining narrative through-lines. But I digress, I think Malick should take a page out of their books and try to get a bit more narrative. The “story,” such as it is, has almost no point at all. It’s a total mess, and its message is absolutely incoherent. He’s just throwing a bunch of shit at the wall, but nothing is sticking because he doesn’t care enough to explore it beyond just putting it out there.

Also, Christian Bale’s life looks pretty sweet, for one so purportedly full of anguish. He looks like Christian Bale, he’s rich and successful (getting paid straight cash for a script at one point!), he lives in LA, he bangs fly honies (Portman, Pinto, Palmer, Poots, Blanchett, random models) left and right, he has an awesome condo, he goes to awesome mansion parties and daytime benders at The Standard (the rooftop club).  Now there is some tragedy to balance it: his brother died a long time ago, his mom is also out of the picture (but we don’t know what happened), and his marriage to Blanchett didn’t end well. But on balance, he’s doing okay, no?  And the problem is movie doesn’t really suggest that the tragedy in his life connects with his personal turmoil.

I saw “Knight of Cups” at the Ace Hotel in downtown LA for the movie’s Hollywood premiere a few days before its official release, it was open to the public because they probably had a hard time filling the theater otherwise. The buzz on this thing has been bad, they shot it two years ago and its release has been delayed several times. Going into it, my big question was: “Will I fall asleep before the Q&A?” The answer was: “Almost, but no.” The Q&A was the big selling point to the whole enterprise, really. It was just listed as a “Q&A with Cast and Crew,” so I didn’t know who to expect out there.

Turns out that Christian Bale was in house! As were Wes Bentley, Freida Pinto, CHIVO LUBEZKI TWO DAYS AFTER WINNING HIS THIRD CONSECUTIVE BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY OSCAR, and Theresa Palmer.

My main takeaway is that Terrence Malick is totally insane and has no idea what he wants when he shoots a movie. It was quite instructive actually, he basically just made shit up all the time. He would write epic phonebook-type stuff for the scripts, make certain actors memorize said scripts and not tell other actors anything about their characters. There were very few pre-pro meetings; for folks who aren’t in the industry, a pre-production meeting is what you have to prepare your actors and crew for the shoot.

One day, Malick had Bentley memorize 40 pages of dialogue OVERNIGHT — and then he never used it in the movie. Instead, for the finished cut, Malick and editors AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase, Geoffrey Richman, and Mark Yoshikawa just showed us Bentley’s panting, tear-ravaged face after delivering all that dialogue. Bentley literally said it was 40 pages, but, I mean, how is that even possible? And Theresa Palmer was just called randomly, he wrote a scene for her in a strip club after she auditioned for another role (I’d assume Portman or Pinto) but didn’t get it. Her agent called her at 10 p.m. one night, telling her that he had been “inspired’ to write a role for her — as a stripper (some empirical evidence towards your Malick-as-perv theory) — and that she was to be on-set at 9 a.m. the next morning. No further information was provided to her, so when Palmer arrived at the strip club location, she had no idea what she was doing or how to be a stripper. She told the screening crowd that she was furiously studying between takes with the real strippers populating the shoot as background extras. As far as she knew, that was her only day on set. Then he invited her back the next day, they threw her into the scene at the diner where she’s in street clothes and sort of just walking around flirtatiously as Bale sits in a booth. Then Malick saw a grocery cart on the sidewalk, instructed her to sit in it and had Bale push the cart. Lubezki confessed to the crowd at the Q&A that he thought Palmer was just a random woman they had recruited off the street! Anyway, I totally agree, Malick is a dirty old man. I think his secret MO for “Knight of Cups” was just to objectify as many beautiful actresses as he could get his wrinkly hands on in the name of art.

The flick was so bad that Q&A panel moderator Scott Cooper (who directed Bale in “Out of the Furnace”) claimed he was “still trying to process” the movie. In the name of said processing, Cooper’s first question addressed the billions of random beach scenes Bale had in “KoC,” where he wanders around both by himself and with various girlfriends, throughout the movie. Cooper asked one of the producers what the waves meant to him, alluding vaguely to the ocean tide maybe being a metaphor for life? Or something? Fittingly, this producer (his name escapes me, and there are a bunch of producers credited) kind of demurred and said he was “still trying to process” the movie too. Even one of Malick’s own producers hated the thing. Also at the Q&A, costume designer Jacqueline West relayed the story of how one day, they had prepped for a big carnival scene, only to find out in the morning that Malick had elected to scrap that and film something entirely different that she then had to prep for anew with no time. Lubeszki said that Malick just had the crew travel around Los Angeles most of the time and film as much stuff as possible.  This reeks of a director who has zero idea of what he wants out of his movie.

Freida Pinto said she was seeing the movie for the first time at that premiere, and that it was the first time she sort of understood what it was about and what other actors’ characters were doing in it. In her audition, she claimed that Malick told her absolutely nothing about her character, or Christian Bale’s character, opposite whom she was performing in that audition. So she just improvised something about how he was a womanizer, which is one of the few plot points that was actually somewhat clear in the movie. Part of me wonders if Malick just lifted that attribute from Pinto’s improv at the audition.


So Malick wasn’t at the premiere though? That’s hilarious. It sounds like everyone involved is really struggling to convince themselves that they were a part of something good.

Quick aside — When is Hollywood going to stop letting Malick make movies? This movie is not going to make any money and most people aren’t going to even like it (this is even probably true for the actors involved). Don’t get me wrong, it’s visually stunning, and Malick does have a certain way with setting a melancholic tone. But in the end it doesn’t add up to anything more than one man exploring his shallow ego, pretending to be deep.

I don’t know if I want him to have his moviemaking privileges revoked. I know he’s been severely off his game recently, but I like the idea of him in principle — someone with total “auteur autonomy.” That is, the kind of director who can make anything he wants, as non-commercial as he wants it to be, with a (relatively) sizable budget and cast. I think that’s an important idea that I do support. But man are his new movies bad.


I guess on principal I like the idea that any filmmaker can eventually earn the right to carte blanche with whatever they make. And Malick has certainly made some great films in the past so I agree that he has earned the freedom to do what he wants to a degree, but he must be close to getting that freedom revoked by now, right? From your description of that Q and A, it sounds like everyone involved from the producers to the talent must be getting weary of his antics. Everyone is kept totally in the dark as to what they are doing throughout the whole process! And then what comes out is this truly muddled mess where everyone involved is straining to rationalize what they just saw. And all in the name of Malick’s “genius.” They must feel like little pawns on Malick’s douchey chess board.

Now, to be fair, “Knight of Cups” is getting mixed-to-bad reviews, unlike the last few Malick movies — but it’s all the same bullshit, the other post-“Thin Red Line” Malick movies aren’t any better really. Nice to see that the critics are finally coming around to these hack jobs. Malick was good once, I agree. But that time is gone.

My big questions: does watching something this horrible make you reappraise Malick’s older, better movies — that is, don’t those flicks begin to seem a bit like happy accidents? Do you think the cast knows how bad it is, or do you think they’re just trying to talk themselves into pretending to “get” it?

From the report you just gave, it sounds to me like the cast and crew know exactly how bad it is and they’re all just holding their tongues because it’s in bad taste to trash the movie you just made.  Maybe.  Maybe I just want that to be true.

My feeling is that Malick keeps making the mistake of thinking that he is smarter than his audience; that he is smarter than everyone he works with. I don’t think this is a matter of everyone not understanding the film because we’re all not smart enough. I think it’s because there’s actually nothing to get.

To answer your question on his overall legacy, I honestly don’t think his recent stuff hurts it. “The Thin Red Line” is a great example. It employs many of the same techniques that Malick is using in “Knight of Cups”- philosophical voice-over, shots of nature, dreamlike montages- but they’re all grounded in a discernible story. There are some great performances in that movie that feel totally earned. It actually makes “Knight of Cups” all the more infuriating for me because I know how great a Malick movie can be.

What do you think about his next film, “Weightless?” Have you heard about it? It’s apparently a companion piece to “Knight of Cups” that also stars Christian Bale and this time, instead of exploring the movie world in LA, explores the music scene in Austin, Texas. Here’s the plot via IMDB: “Two intersecting love triangles. Obsession and betrayal set against the music scene in Austin, Texas.” And check out the cast- Christian Bale, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Val Kilmer, Benicio Del Toro, Holly Hunter, Clifton Collins Jr. How does he do it?!?!

Haha. Re: “Weightless” — it’s funny, the Malick name really has this “auteur” cache. For example, when I heard that Kilmer (who has long been one of my favorite actors) had been cast in a Malick movie, my first thought was, “Woah, good for Kilmer!” Even though I haven’t liked anything Malick has done this century, there’s still this prestige factor attached to his name, because (I’m convinced) the sheen of his first three movies hasn’t worn off yet. I didn’t even love “The Thin Red Line” or “Badlands,” but they are definitely really good movies. Not all-timers for me, but yeah, I agree with your assessment of “Red Line” — the grounding in a real story enables the resonance of the philosophizing elements. Because “Knight of Cups” is so apathetic about the story element, it didn’t connect with me either. Totally infuriating, I’m with ya. Anyway, I’ll probably skip “Weightless,” despite the A-list roster. Life’s too short.

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