Knight of Cups Dir. Terrence Malick

[Broad Green Pictures; 2015]

Styles: existential musing, Hollywood satire
Others: 8 1/2, To the Wonder, Mirror

The disassociation and ennui of a Hollywood player are blown up to cosmic and mythopoetic proportions in Terrence Malick’s latest gush of ultralight beams, Knight of Cups. The player is Rick (Christian Bale), an apparent screenwriter who lingers at photo shoots, crawls through parties, and stares vacantly at the homeless denizens of LA’s Skid Row when he’s not standing by a crashing ocean or pacing in circles around the desert. Before the film fixes into Rick’s point of view, Malick begins in the stars, floating through the northern lights and outlining the curvature of the Earth. We’re referred to tales of wayward souls: A narrator talks about an Egyptian prince sent who was sent west to find a pearl, but became lost in hedonism; and an opening quote situates Rick in the lineage of John Bunyan’s proto-novel and religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The player is a drifter, but in Knight of Cups, Rick’s doubts and his past come to visit him. A set of loosely defined chapters, named after Tarot cards, each seem vaguely defined by an ex- or potential lover, or Rick’s troubled family past. His father, played by Brian Dennehy — who also contributes voiceover narration — is a classic mid-century bear of alcoholism and misplaced reticence. His brother (Wes Bentley) disrupts Malick’s slipstream collage of images and sound with fraternal violence and emotionally direct breakdowns, all influenced by addiction. Rick’s lovers (Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and Isabel Lucas) try to cure him of his longstanding sense of displacement: they call him weak, probe his psyche, or merely live freely as Rick roots around in the depths of his desiccated soul. He is, in Malick’s montage, a dog diving into the water to wrap his mouth around a toy, always just out of reach of his prize.

Does this sound pretentious to you? Or maybe shallow, sexist, indulgent, insufferable, solipsistic (many details of Rick’s biography resemble Malick’s life), or self-parodic? Lucky you. Knight of Cups is very much in the aesthetic mold of his last feature, To the Wonder, easily maligned for its twirling camera movements and attempts to attach world-historical grief to Ben Affleck’s stoic face. The motion here is similarly constant, and it’s captured on smartphones and consumer-grade cameras along with Emmanuel Lubezki’s nearly peerless Steadicam. Nearly every elliptical utterance is a plaintive musing from the spiritually bereft. There is, somehow, even less of a narrative to grab a hold of than there was in To the Wonder. Along with being a dance performance that was also a statement on man’s inability to master and transcend language, To the Wonder was a fairly simple love story. Knight of Cups is a series of ephemeral affairs, difficult to delineate and probably even harder to care about. There’s certainly no arc, and I can’t quite claim there’s any redemption either.

This is, if there ever was one, a wavelength film. A film you can admire but find chilly or silly. A film you can reject outright. Or a film you can groove on, until it leads you into an uncanny frame of mind. Fond as Malick is of oceans and deserts, he’s keen to explore the built environment that surrounds Rick: studio backlots, opulent mansions hosting Hollywood parties, modernist apartments lined by glass windows, derelict sidewalks littered with the dispossessed, the highways above them, the advertisements above those. To live in the world of Malick, Lubezki, and editor Billy Weber is to see it through rejuvenated eyes. The snaking freeway on-ramps are our ugly, crumbling infrastructure; the billboards are omnipresent paper tigers that beckon and repulse in equal measure. Surrounded by such monumental imagery, Rick is Malick’s Don Draper, the bereft hunk buckling under the weight of capitalism, his past, and his civilization’s seismic unrest. (In one scene, Rick wakes up to an earthquake.) A key image in Knight of Cups depicts an outdoor music festival, with a teeming crowd dwarfed by stories-high stacks of speakers in video screens. The next shot, of a hulking mountainside, seems to erase centuries in the blink of an eye. One gets the overwhelming sense that Rick doesn’t know how, or even if, he should define his role on this rock.

By way of Malick’s slipstream montage, Rick seems to soak up the world and hold it arm’s length. (Bale’s performance, or whatever you’d care to call it, consists of perhaps a page of dialogue and a striking catalog of temporary expressions.) Knight of Cups is a deeply interior journey, and appropriately it’s a film told in fragments. I’m sympathetic to admiring critics who seek to impose an order and logic on Malick’s radically impressionistic narrative, but Knight of Cups is, thankfully, bigger than an exploration of the vacuousness of life as a cog in the Hollywood machine. The metaphysics of Malick are a distinct part of the allure of films like The New World, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life, all of which are masculinist historical narratives confronted by crises of faith. I suspect some of our aversion to this new breed of films by the director stems from their absence of traditional heroes. It’s relatively easy to confront man’s struggle with God and nature when that man is John Smith, or a grunt scrambling up the hills of Guadalcanal. It’s more difficult when that man is an agricultural scientist at a Sonic drive-through, or a wayward screenwriter who loves to drive by LAX and watch planes land overhead.

Malick’s rebuke of a (relatively) traditional heroic narrative is understandably alienating — it’s really difficult to praise his recent work without sounding like a scold or a dupe — but it’s clear the director has been liberated by what, for now, seems like a decisive break. (His next film, Weightless, is set in Austin’s music scene.) As Malick plucks at the strings of Rick’s interiority, we’re forced to consider our own ideals and ideals, how or whether we function in the world, and whether the world can properly function in our presence. Without the trappings of the historical epic, Malick is questing through the world as it is, and offering an invitation to the spiritually bereft. You can take it or leave it.

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