Film Review – Knight of Cups
Knight of Cups
I dread the day Terrence Malick stops making films. He is one of a kind, an original voice. No one makes movies the same way he does, and when he decides to call it quits he will take away a view of the world entirely his own. People claim him pretentious, a purveyor of pretty images devoid of substance. This is completely understandable. A recluse who refuses to provide insight to his motivations, Malick exists almost exclusively on the screen. He isn’t interested in traditional stories with three act structures where a protagonist grows from beginning to end. Instead he delves almost entirely into feeling. Intense emotion seeps through every frame, and it’s our responsibility to fill in the missing pieces. Why must everything be explained? Most people would be turned off by his style, but for me it is absolutely riveting.
Perhaps no other filmmaker is as devoted to the act of observation. Malick is a master of examining that which others would disregard. In Knight of Cups (2015), we follow a Hollywood writer, Rick (Christian Bale) as he wonders through the Los Angeles and Vegas terrain. But Malick doesn’t adhere himself to that framework. He (along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) is willing to stop the narrative midstream to view details unrelated to the main story. A homeless man sitting alone on a street, the scars of a burn victim, a baby learning how to walk, thousands of people dancing at a concert. All of these images create a collage of life and color. Some may see these juxtaposed with the glitz and glamour, and charge Malick as malicious towards Hollywood. While no one is arguing that the industry can be vapid, Malick never uses the camera to make judgment. He is simply curious, wondering how we live in a world where the beautiful and the grotesque are so interchangeable.
There is a story here, although it is presented unconventionally. Hushed voiceovers accompany the visuals, combining to tell of Rick’s search for emotional and spiritual fulfillment. We’re hinted toward familial strain. A brother died years ago (or was it recently?) and the turmoil of the event has never gone away. It seems only now that Rick is reconnecting with his other brother (Wes Bentley). His father (Brian Dennehy) shows signs of dementia, which only widens the rifts amongst the family. Rick’s physician wife (Cate Blanchett) loves him and cares about her patients, yet there are forces at play (maybe the absence of a child?) that are pulling them apart.
All the while, we watch Rick journey through the ins and outs of work and play. We visit studio back lots, meeting rooms, cafes, and beaches. We go to open deserts, strip clubs, and fancy mansions. One scene has Rick going to a party hosted by a flamboyant Antonio Banderas. Another has him at a writer’s meeting with Dan Harmon, barely listening to the conversation. Every scene comes in random, episodic fashion. But through each there is a consistent, and it is Rick. He is detached from this world – he is both part of it and an outsider. He walks through the environments languidly, as though everything around him is moving at light speed but he is in slow motion. There is no satisfaction, he no longer gets the fulfillment of his job, and so he goes on a personal odyssey to find it anywhere he can.
I know what you’re thinking: this is just another example of a rich white man going through an existential crisis brought on by his own success. If this were any lesser film, I would agree. But through the lens of Terrence Malick, there’s something here – almost unexplainable – that makes the material so captivating. There isn’t a sense that we’re supposed to feel bad for Rick, but to simply understand him. We all have moments where we question the life we’ve led and whether we made the right choices, and there have certainly been times where we have tried to pull meaning out of the superficial. For Rick, he misunderstands the difference between love and sex. He goes through a number of different relationships with women, some stronger than others (Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer). One affair with a married woman (Natalie Portman) has the potential to be become something real. But through each encounter there is an air of inevitability. His search for emotional love can only lead to heartbreak, maybe because he no longer knows what it means to be fully committed to another person. Each time he enters a relationship, he and his partner walk along the beach. It’s as though he is going through the motions. A character points out that he enjoys the “experience” of falling in love, rather than “being” in love.
Watching Knight of Cups, I’m reminded of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). In that, the lead character (Marcello Mastroianni) goes through a similar crisis of soul. He is a journalist who’s lost his inspiration, wondering through the Italian nightlife in search of truth in a myriad of hollowness. The films share remarkable characteristics. Each protagonist goes through a series of unconnected events with a defining theme stringing them together. Both feature a party scene where the decadence devolves into a bizarre state. The search for the “Sweet Life” is a constant and never ending one, filled with moments of joy and sadness along the way.
Look, I get it: this is not everyone’s cup of tea. There will be people who will take a bite out of this, say “yuck,” and immediately toss it away. It has a jumbled, repetitive nature. The dialogue is so quiet that it operates more like a sound effect than a coherent thought. The use of title screens to mark each chapter, using the names off tarot cards, is baffling. People will not like this approach and claim that Malick is at risk of becoming a parody of his own style. But I do sense that he is reaching for something deeper, something meaningful. From Tree of Life (2011) forward, his work have become less story-based, but with each installment he has become more fascinating. This is his most unusual project to date. He has moved from nostalgic period pieces to a modern setting. The narrative isn’t blown out to talk about the universe or the creation of man. But every character contributes to Rick’s story, every element has a purpose. We don’t get any extra fluff (see Sean Penn in Tree of Life or Rachel McAdams in To the Wonder, 2012).
There is a recurring motif in Knight of Cups that deserves attention, and it’s the use of water. Water is seen everywhere. Rick is routinely walking along a shore, taking a shower, or jumping into an ocean. There are shots of running faucets or sprinkling fountains. Children jump into bodies of water. Antonio Banderas hops into his pool fully clothed. We also get an extended montage of a dog jumping into water, trying to retrieve a tennis ball. What does this all mean, or is it all meaningless? Maybe that’s exactly the question Malick is asking.