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By Sarah Ward
November 17, 2015
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By Sarah Ward
November 17, 2015
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It's telling that Knight of Cups features many a dive into a pool, seaside stroll and wave crashing against the beach. The latest movie from The Tree of Life and To the Wonder's Terrence Malick is awash in recognisable elements and seems as familiar as water. It's also as malleable as the wet substance that covers the bulk of the earth and comprises most of the human body — and as invigorating.

Of course, places and people are the film's primary concerns, particularly Los Angeles and a screenwriter by the name of Rick (Christian Bale). In the city known for the emptiness beneath its allure — indeed, David Lynch (in Inland Empire) and David Cronenberg (in Maps to the Stars) have already plumbed its depths — he's a man plunged into a crisis, making a mess of his successful life as he searches for meaning.

Rick drifts through his days, unhappy with his choices but uncertain about how to change them. His problems are many, and not just linked to his failed marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett), or spate of flings (with Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Portman and Isabel Lucas) afterwards. Tragedy haunts his family, straining his relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy). Though his career is beginning to take off, thrusting him into a glamorous world, it lacks fulfilment past the glitz and partying.

As a result, Rick is both wading and paddling feverishly, and so is the film. Malick uses him not just as a protagonist, but as a buoy in a feature that lurches restlessly from place to place and person to person. Sometimes the movie stalks him as he floats through apartments and buildings, around sets and shindigs, and on walks over rugged terrain and by the ocean. Sometimes it adopts his perspective as it dashes around in fragments of his existence.

That means that often, when you dip your toes in the feature, you get what you're expecting: a commonly told tale of mid-life malaise, Malick's roaming visuals and whispered layers of philosophical narration, and a focus on contemplation among them. Just as frequently, though, you get a burst that takes you by surprise: in dropping out of one tarot card-named chapter and into the next, in the symphony of classical music sounds and sun-dappled sights, and in the movie's dissection of hedonism, for example. Even when the surface appears still, something is always bubbling up below. Consider Knight of Cups, then, an ideal balance between relaxing and refreshing, and meditative and stimulating.

Of course, with Malick at the helm, the film's reflective questioning becomes a gliding kaleidoscope of wide-angle images strikingly shot by Oscar-winning Gravity and Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a montage-heavy mood piece as much as a movie. Conversation rarely lasts beyond a single line, and the all-star cast — which includes brief appearances by everyone from Antonio Banderas to Jason Clarke and Nick Offerman to Fabio — exist more than they perform.

And yet, as Knight of Cups ebbs and flows over the course of its fluid 118 minutes, there's no mistaking its emotional and sensory impact. Plus, if you're going to jump in a seemingly familiar body of water filled with hypnotic experiences and hidden depths, you want Malick as your guide. With him in charge, you haven't really swum there and splashed through this before.

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