"WE'RE ALL STANDING THERE, and Malick hands out these pieces of paper to all of us," actor Thomas Lennon told Business Insider, recalling his experience shooting Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups. "And the one he gave me said, 'There's no such thing as a fireproof wall.' And I ask, 'Is this something I'm supposed to say in the scene?' And he said, 'I don't know.'" The card, it turns out, was meant to inspire Lennon, and it was about all the inspiration he'd get—since, according to Lennon, Knight of Cups didn't have a script.
"Would you like some more?" Malick later asked. "Because I have a whole stack of these."
Lennon, best known for Reno 911!, is one of a billion celebrities who flits through Knight of Cups, Malick's Los Angeles-set latest. There's Antonio Banderas! There's Dan Harmon! There's Nick Offerman! There's Joe Manganiello! There's that guy who played that nerd in Buffy! All of these cameos almost make bits of Knight of Cups feel like a Woody Allen movie—until you remember that while Allen cranks out a movie a year, Knight of Cups is Malick's seventh in 43 years.
But Malick's filmography is an unfuckwithable argument for quality over quantity. Those seven films—including Knight of Cups—are remarkable, evocative experiences, from his more plot-focused early work, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), to his sprawling, impressionistic efforts in The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), to his nature-focused The New World (2005) and his poetic The Thin Red Line (1998). Part of why Malick's films are so challenging is because they don't have any analogues: Nobody else is able (or willing) to strike such a balance between beauty (it's nearly impossible not to be gobsmacked by the visuals) and philosophy (it's also nearly impossible not to be overwhelmed by the melancholy of existence).
But Knight of Cups does something different than the director's previous movies: It blurs the line between reality and fiction, between personas we already know and those that have been invented for the film. Antonio Banderas in Knight of Cups is clearly playing Antonio Banderas, just as Dan Harmon acts just like Dan Harmon. We see these people's faces, and hear their voices, and know who they are. Yet our focus remains on Christian Bale, who isn't playing Christian Bale—he's Rick, a screenwriter stumbling through Los Angeles' sun-drenched purgatory, his path intersecting with girlfriends and exes (played by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Imogen Poots, and Teresa Palmer) and his troubled family (Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Cherry Jones). Over it all floats the disembodied voice of Ben Kingsley, offering cryptic pronouncements, as Malick slices his film into chapters titled after tarot cards: "The Moon." "The Hanged Man." "The High Priestess." "The Tower." "Knight of Cups."
If this sounds confusing and goofy, well... yeah. Leaning hard into Malick's trend toward abstraction, Knight of Cups—which deals with things as tangible as sex and earthquakes, but also spends time in orbit, watching auroras twist across the surface of the Earth—can feel like watching Malick try to out-Malick Malick.
But what keeps Knight of Cups from feeling too confusing—too goofy, too wanky—is the sense that Malick knows what he's doing. On a plot level, Knight of Cups is yet another entry in the "sad white dude is sad" genre, but with each of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's careful shots, and every time Malick submerges us into a rush of tumbling water, or strands us on a barren plain, Knight of Cups feels immersive and purposeful in a way few movies can. This is Malick's talent: somehow using a camera and a microphone to capture what longing feels like, how time speeds up and drags us along, how experiences make—as Kingsley intones early on—the "fragments, pieces of a man."
Like the divisive The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups is about more than its subjects. Sure, Malick can get everyone in Hollywood to cameo, and yeah, he's the go-to guy for stunning imagery—but with Knight of Cups, he does these things to get at the big stuff. (Not for nothing do we leave Hollywood below in order to watch those auroras; not for nothing do characters leave behind snippets of Catholicism, Buddhism, alcoholism.) Knight of Cups might not be for everybody—hell, it definitely won't be for everybody—but for those of us who've followed Malick this far, it can feel like nothing less than a gift.