Movie Review: Knight of Cups
Drinking in Terrence Malick’s imagery of deeply saturated Los Angeles will leave you in a mental stupor, but that seems to be the point of this meditation on movies
Knight of Cups
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Freida Pinto, Antono Banderas
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Running time: 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
You may not understand them. You may not even like them. But Terrence Malick movies feed the soul.
Each one of them seems to carry a little grain of personal truth that agitates inside, lingering with unresolved imagery and snippets of half-audible dialogue that turn into a lustrous pearl of reflection.
Scenes from The New World have forever changed the way I read history, and moments from Badlands – a film I saw once, over thirty years ago – still replay at random in the Movieola of my mind.
His camera roams barren landscapes, bumping into empty souls and human arrogance – but forever craving a sliver of redemption, a quest for meaning, a moment of divine bliss that makes all this chicken scratching upon the earth worthwhile.
Malick’s movies capture an existential feeling more than they tell a story, which is probably why so many people find them so unbearably irritating and pompous. I remember watching The Thin Red Line, about to cry crocodile tears at the tragic senselessness of war, when someone behind me started screaming obscenities at the screen because they were so bored.
I was rapt, but I get it. Malick’s films go out of their way to not make sense – at least not in the way we understand traditional narrative form, where stories have a beginning, middle, a climax and an ending.
Malick’s movies are often unscripted. They depend on improvisation, fluid camera moves from his longtime collaborator, cinematograher Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (The Revenant, Birdman, The New World) and a formidable obsession with metaphysics.
They are an experience, not a distraction, and the subtleties of that particular distinction are what lie at the heart of Malick’s seventh feature, Knight of Cups.
Taking its title from the tarot card of the questing dreamer, and beginning with a quote from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress from 1678 (“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream”), Knight of Cups also tips its rim to the story of a prince in search of a pearl.
A disembodied voice-over begins to drift into the speakers as fragmented, unfocused shots of Christian Bale resolve against the hazy sprawl of Los Angeles: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But the prince … forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.”
That’s about all we get in terms of an explanation before Malick throws us into the vortex of seemingly random imagery: Bale at a party in the Hollywood Hills, gorgeous women making sexy eyes at the drifting camera, a conversation on the studio back lot. It’s an ad for Captain Morgan, on acid: A sunbaked hallucination where fame fades into fever dream, a desperate desire for constant distraction and self-indulgence, followed by the consuming sensation of absolute emptiness.
Through half-whispers, we learn our central character is Rick (Bale), he’s a writer, and he’s also got some family baggage, and some attachment issues. Ex-girlfriends and ex-wives weave through the fine tapestry of Malick’s frames, connecting Rick to different states of mind, and multiple emotions, all related through this cascade of moving images.
You could say it’s all avant-garde contrivance, but that would be cheating yourself out of the mystery of Malick’s filmmaking, and what he reveals through the gaping holes in narrative.
The gaps create the texture. They help us run our hand over the missing parts, and stretch a tremulous fingertip into the subconscious. Rick has everything. But his life is empty – a fact Malick illustrates through Rick’s home, a half-empty loft that looks out over a duplicate apartment on the other side of the street.
At one point, he gets robbed. “Why don’t you have any fucking stuff??!!!” screams the gun-toting intruder, tweaking in his living room. It’s a question even the viewer would like answered, but like all of Malick’s movies, there are no pat replies or anything resembling closure. There are only questions, and the odd bleak observation about the nature of existence.
In this case, the metaphysics are placed in the most hostile of environments: the dream-factory called Hollywood, where princes in search of pearly wisdom are distracted by the pleasures of the flesh and the ego-satisfaction of fame.
Malick has essentially created a thoroughly modern stage of conflict: The ease of escapist entertainment versus an uncomfortable confrontation the existential void set against the ersatz backdrops of distraction manufacturing.
It’s a perfect little snowglobe where pathos swirls like glittering snowflakes, fragments of Rick’s life flashing before our eyes, snippets of love, lust and loss fluttering in the fluid of each frame. Depending on your state of mind, it will either be repetitious and annoying, or oddly relaxing and inexplicably spiritual – because that’s Malick.
He’s trying to do things few directors attempt. He’s trying to wake us from the deep sleep of modern distraction by using its favored form: Movies. It’s always a bold experiment, and even if it doesn’t always work, the images linger. Knight of Cups is probably the better version of To The Wonder, Malick’s last picture starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams that took on the expectations surrounding romantic love.
The films look the same and deal with a protagonist in a similar crisis: Love. In this case, the central quote is something about how “much love is out there that never gets expressed…”
So much love without a vessel. Can the Knight of Cups fill his glass?
Set against a landscape that is foreign but familiar, Knight of Cups takes us on a journey we can all recognize, even when it doesn’t make sense. Part of the credit goes to Bale, for projecting a huge amount of thought and emotion without language, and the rest goes to Malick, for making a movie that takes on the very nature and purpose of moviemaking by making us more aware of what they are, and what they can never be.
Some references from Knight of Cups:
THE EX-PRESS, March 30, 2016