Reviewing an old Terrence Malick film is like reviewing Moby-Dick: Everything’s been said already. So I’ll point you to two outstanding reviews and limit my comments to just a view observations.
Matt Zoller Seitz encapsulates the spirit of Knight of Cups (2015) when he writes, “The film seems to be fighting a losing battle to make sense of itself, to coalesce into a statement, to not fade away. This feels right.” And Richard Brody, who’s at his very best when reviewing arthouse films, posts a review that, intellectually, is at the same level of achievement as the film is aesthetically.
For me, the film is indeed an astounding achievement in expanding the limits of cinematic language, but maybe even more astounding are the end credits and media interviews with the actors. The film feels like a small-sized production with an outsized extras budget and with all the big names doing it for the experience, but there’s actually quite a long list of people who chipped in. Also, despite the tonal consistency of the music, there’re a whopping fifty-two songs listed, along with a truckload of artwork. The credits match each actor to a character name, betraying the existence of a script (they also name a script supervisor), as hinted at in actors’ mentions of a small number of pages handed to them each day (with the notable exception of Christian Bale, who plays the protagonist and only speaks in voiceover, recorded in post).
The filming process as revealed in interviews bespeaks a bottomless budget and limitless timeframe; as is his wont, Malick shoots whatever he wants to on the merest whim and doesn’t give constraining direction, instead just cutting out unwanted footage during editing. If it weren’t for the existence of his previous films, I’d be amazed at what this process produced. Most films I can more or less imagine what it’d be like to shoot and edit; a Malick film (at least since The New World (2005)) I have zero idea of how to even begin making. It’s like trying to paint Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. And yet, by some miracle named Terrence Malick, everything coheres perfectly.
One final point: The credits list among the cast “Burn Victim #1” and “Burn Victim #2.” So that’s what Cate Blanchett’s character is treating! You learn something new every day.