Terrence Malick’s last three films, a trilogy comprising The Tree of Life (2011), To The Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015), have proved progressively challenging for critics and public alike.
The first film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, collected Oscar nominations and sixteen citations in a Sight and Sound poll as one of the best films of all time, in equal place with The Conformist, Madame de… and Meshes of the Afternoon. Budgeted at $32 million, The Tree of Life grossed $54 million world-wide, not enough to take it into the black, but considering its status as Serious Art Film, not a bad effort.
The remaining two-thirds of the trilogy have fared less well. To The Wonder opened Venice to “mixed” reviews and managed only $0.5 million at the box office. Knight of Cups, after debuting in February at Berlin, opened in three European countries in October and last month in a handful of Australian cinemas. It’s not scheduled for release in the United States until next March.
Perhaps the Australian screenings are prompted by Cate Blanchett’s involvement but if this is the sole reason for attending you will be disappointed. Like the other actors - Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas and Ryan O’Neill – she is not blessed with a great thespian opportunity here. They are cut-outs, conduits for Malick to again weave a similar narrative to the previous films - family conflict, love and loss, voice-over ruminations about our place in the universe and our inability to make sense of the metaphysic no matter how long we live.
Once again, the characters stare at nature a lot and lovers walk around each other on beaches, in parched, mostly backlit deserts or playfully behave like flirtatious children, this time at Hollywood parties, in soulless modern Los Angeles apartments and Malibu beach houses.
The trilogy is sometimes reminiscent of films from the 1960s American avant-garde. Seemingly mundane concrete steps and bare walls are held in mid-shot while shadows artfully play over their surfaces. Buildings shaped with sharp edges cut into an expanse of sky broken only by birds or aircraft. Apart from a brief excursion to Las Vegas, it’s the southern Californian light that bathes much of this film in a pale gold and the swimming pools of the Hollywood houses are given a distinctly David Hockney perspective.
It’s poetic cinema alright and there’s an element of the miraculous that films like this are ever made in the USA. (Every time I watch Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There I’m in awe of whoever put up the bucks). Considering the repetitious nature of Malick’s philosophical quest, and I’m none the wiser at the end of the trilogy, has it been worth three films with a combined running time of just over 6 hours?
If you think Malick is just having a lend of us and there are plenty who do, stick around for the music track credits to Knight of Cups. Anyone who puts that much thought into the incidental musical has, as Pharaoh Sanders would say, a Master Plan, even if the metaphysic seems endlessly in search of clarity.