Terrence Malick has to be the most divisive filmmaker working today.  His projects don’t cater to anyone and he offers viewers a unique, singular vision. General audiences tend to criticize his films for being slow and pretentious, while his most ardent supporters seem to worship the ground that he walks upon. In my opinion, Malick can deliver some truly rewarding viewing experiences, most notably with 2011’s brilliant The Tree of Life. But his experiments can also go too far and I think that’s the case with Knight of Cups, which is probably his least accessible film to date and that’s really saying something. Its strange structure and striking imagery will please Malick’s hardcore fans, but it also lacks any true emotional connection, something that’s an important piece of his best films.

Plot isn’t usually an important part of Malick’s films, but Knight of Cups abandons plot altogether and focuses solely on feelings and images. We’re introduced to Rick (Christian Bale), a successful Hollywood screenwriter whose life has grown empty and joyless. His marriage with a physician (Cate Blanchett) has crumbled and he now spends most of his time with beautiful models. From the women to the cars to the extravagant parties, it seems like he’s living the dream, but he’s become numb to the luxury. Malick highlights Rick’s struggle through his interaction with other people including a womanizing playboy (Antonio Banderas), his unstable brother (Wes Bentley) and a beautiful woman (Natalie Portman).

Malick has become known for his visuals and in his seventh film, he definitely does not disappoint. Aided by three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick creates some truly memorable images. A sequence involving dogs jumping into a pool after tennis balls is a delight and a scene in a nightclub is stunning in its use of lighting and editing. Hardly any dialogue is exchanged between characters within a scene, so the film is absolutely dependent on these unique visuals and the whispery narration from characters. It’s all intriguing to watch, but it does come across as kind of pretentious, especially since Malick’s theme of loneliness in Hollywood isn’t exactly revelatory.

But it’s the lack of a character from Christian Bale that makes the film the most frustrating. He hardly ever speaks or acts like a normal person, walking through each scene like a zombie. It’s impossible to connect with him on an emotional level when he shows about as much character as a department store mannequin. This is certainly not Bale’s fault, with the entirety of the blame falling at the feet of the director. It’s fine if Malick doesn’t want to make his films easily accessible, but this one is so inaccessible that it loses its effectiveness.

And yet, there’s still something special about it. Malick’s been an inspiration for many filmmakers, but no one can create these unique, experimental projects quite like him. The presentation is admirable, even if it’s not entirely successful. His films do tend to improve on a rewatch, so there’s always a chance that Knight of Cups could be looked at as a masterpiece in a decade or so. I think that might be pushing things a bit, but there’s something here that makes me want to give this another shot. It might not be great, but it’s undeniably an experience.

Knight of Cups receives 2.5/4

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