Never have I seen a movie so full of beautiful imagery and sound, yet so simultaneously empty, unsatisfying, and downright sleazy, as Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. But this is precisely its point. The film’s 118-minute parade of bodies, beaches, and landscapes, accompanied by painfully brief snippets of Grieg, Debussy and Vaughan Williams, provides a glut of beauty that is also a deprivation. Always parts, never a whole. Fragments of pleasure, blips of meaning, a stream of consumables not unlike the disconnected feeds and curated media experiences of our iPhone lives.

One character in the film defines “damnation” as “the pieces of your life never coming together, just splashed out there.” And that is a feeling one might get watching Knight, a film as arduous and uncomfortable to sit through as any I’ve seen in recent years (certainly any starring A-list talent like Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett). And yet something about it rings hauntingly true to 21st-century man’s navigation of a mediated menagerie, full of garish images, escapist fantasies, pornographic pleasures, and trifling transcendences.

That is, if said 21st-century man makes it all the way through the film. Mid-film walkouts were a well-publicized feature of Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and will doubtless characterize Knight as well (dozens walked out of the screening I attended). Ben Affleck once said Malick’s To the Wonder (2013) made Life “look like Transformers.” Well, Knight makes Wonder look like Pretty Woman. Since he returned to filmmaking in 1998 with the WWII epic The Thin Red Line (itself avant-garde), Malick’s films have been increasingly flagrant ...

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