Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Terrence Malick
Directed by: Terrence Malick
The cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick continues in his cryptic Knight of Cups, an offering that may well epitomize everything his admirers adore and everything detractors feel scorned by for not ‘getting.’
I know how pretentious that sounds but truth is I land squarely in the middle when it comes to both understanding and appreciating his work.
I don’t know what he was like pre-Tree of Life but admittedly I was more ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ over the visual grandeur rather than being pulled in to deep meditative thought (as I was probably supposed to be). And then To the Wonder came out and the same thing happened: I struggled mightily to relate to the relationship woes and the characters involved but the cinematography once more seduced me.
So when it started happening a third time during Knight of Cups, an experience I’d liken to hypnosis rather than just another trip to the movie theater, I had to wonder: is it enough to think highly of a movie just based on how it looks and how the aesthetics make me feel? (And I ought to differentiate that from how the product as a whole makes me feel.) What does that say about me? What does it say about the film? How can I like something without first understanding it?
It might help to first gain a general understanding of what Malick is basing his latest evocatively-titled production on. The Knight of Cups is one of many tarot cards — played in 15th Century European card games, now more commonly used by mystics to predict outcomes as related to divine intervention — and is considered the “most feminine of all the knight [cards],” representing someone very much attuned to their own emotions and intuition. (Here’s where the comparisons between the two knights Christian Bale has now played abruptly end. Although, interestingly enough, both turn out to be fairly broken men who struggle to relate to or even interact with others.)
In what can only be described as an incredibly introspective performance — most of what little dialogue he has is restricted to ethereal voiceovers while his physical being drifts nomadically between the bright lights of L.A. and the people-free sprawl of Elsewhere, California — Bale’s introduced as a shell of a man searching for love and true contentment in a world where the only thing that matters is what you see on the surface. He plays a screenwriter named Rick, a man so lost within himself no one, including his crazy father (Brian Dennehy), his lonely brother (Wes Bentley) and a slew of beautiful women, can awaken him from his stupor.
In case you’re wondering — no, it’s not as simple as finding the handsome prince (or in this case, the beautiful princess) and having a simple kiss break the spell. Sleeping Beauty this ain’t.
Knight of Cups starts out pretty lethargically but then starts to spite even the most patient viewer’s best efforts to adapt, the deliberately disorienting nonlinearity as Malick-y as it gets. It’s a journey into the psyche of a man who seems to have it all but finds very little comfort in his abundant material possessions. To complicate matters further, we don’t really get any context clues about the genesis of his misery. (As if this was ever going to be an easily relatable character anyway.) Rick’s had a successful career, evidenced by his upscale apartment in the glitzy downtown area. He has access to all the swanky parties, a byproduct of his connection to a superficial industry.
A rare insight comes at the very beginning, where we’re informed via a deeply-voiced, god-like narrator that Rick has recently suffered something of a fall from grace, some internal pain that has created a numbness to not only the life he leads but to the world in general. Of course, Malick prefers the metaphorical (I can appreciate that about him): we’re actually told the knight has fallen from his horse and lost his cup. That he no longer acts as though he realizes he is a Prince, and that his privileges are vast but constantly fleeting.
We watch as he tries desperately to reconnect with the world that is simultaneously at his feet and in constant motion, either away from or around him. Well, it’s more like we watch the revolving door of women interact, or attempt to interact, with a distant Rick as they come and go in a series of vignettes that simultaneously bemuse and bewitch. Delia (Imogen Poots), the first girl we sort of get to know, is a playful, adventurous ball of energy who disappears as quickly as she appears in Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving frame. We later meet the quieter, gentler Isabel (Isabel Lucas) and later still a fun-loving stripper played by Teresa Palmer. Of all the women we see him with it’s his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) who seems to leave the most lasting impression. That is until we meet Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a girl who comes in to the story later but with whom he’s been earlier in his life and whom he has apparently wronged egregiously.
It’s his many escapades with women, be they in his apartment or on sun-kissed beaches, that save Knight of Cups from being totally devoid of structure, and thus from being totally free-form and inaccessible (not unlike this unfocused review). It’s divided into eight chapters, all of which bear the names of other tarot cards, minus the closing chapter — ‘Freedom’ — and a prologue. While the titles seem to make sense, the material contained within each set vary from slightly random to downright inexplicable: watching a kaleidoscopic frame of a girl doused in black paint means little to me even if it looks really cool. Then, the repetition begins to set in. Dare I say it, a sense of fatigue. Even if Lubezki’s serene camerawork creates the kind of imagery you can only dream in, there’s little hiding the fact Malick is dealing in a narrative that’s no denser than a piece of paper.
Because the objective — I think — is to coax the audience into the same head space the protagonist is damned to, Malick has the unenviable task of emphasizing the psychological process of internalizing thoughts and feelings we generate in response to daily interactions with the world. In other words, he has to rely heavily on highly abstract concepts to do much of the steering. Things like longing for a way to mend the wounds his brother and his father share after the death of another family member, or a way to make himself feel love rather than being motivated by the idea of love. Very little of that translates to something that viewers can consume on a visual or aural level. Hence my spending large chunks of the film somewhat detached, mesmerized almost exclusively by Chivo’s consistency behind the lens.
Seriously. It’s like the guy didn’t just recently win his third consecutive Academy Award.
Malick might be a genius. Paired with the record-breaking Chivo, he’s a force to be reckoned with even though the man needs perhaps more help than any working director today in bringing his unusually high-concept visions to life. But he also might be crazy. Many say the two are inextricably linked — the gap between creativity and sanity seemingly widening the higher up the ladder of creativity you climb. I’m more comfortable describing Knight of Cups as a crazy leap of faith taken on his part, requiring so much of his audience while giving them so little to work with on any sort of practical level.
So in the end . . . was it third time’s a charm with Knight of Cups? For me it certainly wasn’t. This is perhaps the most alienated I’ve felt by his directorial approach but I also left the theater lost in thought about the world outside of that very building. I was accounting for my physical presence for a much longer time than was really necessary. I might have been talking to myself. I can’t decide if what happened to me in the aftermath made any sense or if that just makes me sound crazy but I do know it is such a rare thing to come out of a movie and keep thinking about it long after you’re back home. Even if those thoughts ultimately leave you exasperated.
Recommendation: One of the infamously strange Terrence Malick’s strangest and least satisfying efforts, Knight of Cups is a tough sell to anyone unfamiliar with the name. In fact it’s been a pretty tough sell to anyone, even those Malick fanatics. (Are there many of those?) Consider yourself a fan of abstract filmmaking? Signing up for this wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do but word on the street is there’s another Malick offering coming right down the pipe this year so it might be best to wait for something even MORE new and even MORE shiny.
Running Time: 118 mins.
Quoted: “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.”
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