Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is about the glamorous ennui of a Hollywood screenwriter to the extent that The Tree of Life is about growing up in Texas, or that To the Wonder is about waylaid adulterers. Which is to say, only superficially. His films have always used ostensible plots and characters as vessels through which to communicate ideas and recount parables steeped philosophical and theological inquiry. He’s the only director making religious art salient to atheists, enlisting Christian symbolism and the aesthetic principles of classical art to transcribe modern man’s place in the universe — and to dissect his troubled soul.1 Perhaps failing to recognise this, Malick’s many vocal detractors have labeled Knight of Cups a film of boring existential despair. Despair abounds in stylish duds, no doubt, and parallels to chic sixties cinema are obvious, but it’s a far cry from the disaffected existentialism of L’Eclisse or La Dolce Vita. Knight of Cups is a religious parable, purloined from gnostic scripture,2 about a malcontented prince who has strayed from the path that his father impelled him to follow. Sent to retrieve a pearl, along the way he has imbibed on the drink of temptation, forgetting his roots and abandoning his principles in his gaudy life amongst new and perfidious friends.
This story is transposed to modern L.A., where Christian Bale’s Rick, forlorn and furrowed in Armani, wanders through Hollywood searching for substance in its superfluous enclaves. His monastic apartment has a Zen-like emptiness to it — a lamp, a lounge, a desk, with no decor. Later, when robbed at gunpoint, his thieves are confounded by the lack of material belongings. Literally shaken from his bearings — and his bed — by an earthquake, he seeks the redemptive straight-and-narrow in California’s wild bacchanals, in a lineage of women from his past, and, like another famous son seeking an ascetic test of faith, in the desert. The film unfolds in a desirous and highly autobiographical3 stream-of-consciousness, a variety of technologies — from pristine high-def digital to off-the-cuff GoPro — forming its transfixing and formally inventive visual mosaic, which is unique in Malick’s filmography for its inclusion of night-clubs and galleries and strip joints amongst the expected natural wonders and angular edifices.
A reflective Rick laments his inertia, submitting to guilt-fuelled poolside parties with Hollywood’s glitterati4, among them Antonio Banderas’s Tonio, a serpentine smooth-talker sent to cajole him into sinful decadence. He is visited by his wayward brother (Wes Bentley) and frustrated father (Brian Dennehy), who upturn past woes in gravelly confrontations of pent-up emotion. The film’s persistent hinting at a fractured familial past is reason enough to link it to The Tree of Life’s modern-day portions starring Sean Penn, and it could be read as a more holistic and satisfying rendition of those scenes.
I have long-believed that Malick’s work occurs in the past tense — half-remembered, half-constructed. Not only does that reading explain the fervent use of voice-over, never more present here, recounting and musing on each experience with that hushed, inimitable whisper, but it also explains the unique aesthetic of Malick’s films: his desire to capture fragmented but ideal forms of corporeal, natural and architectural beauty, rendered so by Emmanuel Lubezki’s superlative cinematography and some elliptical, compelling editing. When Malick isn’t scaling metaphysical heights, his most grounded films, Knight of Cups amongst them, could be considered important works on the narration of memory and its role in the authorship of story and aesthetic. As such, the many women of this film are captured in a way only Malick can achieve, illuminating their beauty as it occupies the mind and memory of Rick. Among them there is Freida Pinto’s Helen, a model; Teresa Palmer’s blonde temptress; Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, a doctor who treats the poor and malformed; Imogen Poots’ anarchic Della; and Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a married woman who, it is suggested, begins to provide Rick with the semblance of salvation he seeks.
And yet, he doesn’t appear to find it so easily. Bale persistently returns to the sea, perhaps in hope of absolution, but Malick withholds — from Rick and from us — an epiphanous ending. Where The New World coalesced into a windswept return to nature, where The Tree of Life hosted a family reunion on firmamental beaches, and where To The Wonder arrived at the monument of it’s title, Knight of Cups tapers off, via a long road, into the future. It has been labeled his “most satisfying film since The Thin Red Line” and yet it lacks that gorgeous, interpretive finality we have come to expect from him. Malick seems to condemn Rick, to seal him in his purgatorial quest, denouncing his specious travails and beckoning him to return to that distant, noble path that his father set him down long-ago.
Less concerned with narrative forms than ever, Malick’s recent releases double as both art and as challenge to audience and authority: made within the Hollywood system (and with Hollywood money), they eschew almost every semblance of filmmaking tradition and studio professionalism. Considering this, it’s astonishing that a sect of criticism continues to turn their noses up in protest at Malick’s easily recognisable idiosyncrasies: the voice-over, the highly choreographed bodily gestures, the sun-drenched cinematography. These distinct Malickisms are as easy to mock as they are to locate, but to complain that they exist, that they don’t represent normal human behaviour, or that they are tiresomely repeated would be tantamount to complaining that Botticelli’s Venus would never realistically have stood so publicly — and in the presence of so many — in the nude. Malick’s films require a patient contemplation or a willingness to reckon with his trove of textual references and delights, as well as an understanding that he approaches films as Renaissance painters approached art — through symbol and allegory with the goal of aesthetic perfection.
There is much to see — and to feel — in Knight of Cups, a film about reaching beyond the superficial in order to redeem enlightened perspectives. Its arcana can be read through the lens of textual interpretation, but the sheer pleasure of its beauty, which, as ever, undulates with a sensation only Malick can create, is reason enough to buy a ticket. My instinct is that it doesn’t quite reach the greatness of my favourite Malick films; its aimlessness and emptiness are ingrained in its themes, and for that reason its denouncement of debauchery, doubling over on its sole protagonist, is less immediately satisfying than the ecstatic heights I favour. Which is not to say I didn’t marvel at it — its scattershot structure, its inquisitive sense of beauty, and its blend of classical and modern forms. But also how it makes even the stalest of narratives, that of masculinity in crisis, seem vital again through a restless refusal to obey unspoken laws of cinema.
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