Knight of Cups
Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Christian Bale (Rick), Cate Blanchett (Nancy), Natalie Portman (Elizabeth), Brian Dennehy (Joseph), Antonio Banderas (Tonio), Freida Pinto (Helen), Wes Bentley (Barry), Isabel Lucas (Isabel), Teresa Palmer (Karen), Imogen Poots (Della), Peter Matthiessen (Christopher), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Fr. Zeitlinger), Cherry Jones (Ruth).
Depending on who you listen to, Terrence Malick has either spent the last few films refining his style – continuing his bold move away from the restraints narrative and character, and into something altogether new and more spiritual, or else he has devolved into navel gazing, self-parody who has thrown out everything relatable and human in his movies to make empty exercises in style. His latest film, Knight of Cups, is not going to change anyone’s minds as to which position they have staked out. It is clearly a continuation from his masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011) and the more problematic To the Wonder (2012) – to complete a trilogy of self-exploration for Malick. He continues with the style he has been working with since his stunning debut, Badlands (1973), and refining ever since, stripping away things like narrative and dialogue, in favor of long, languid tracking shots, and whispered voiceover. The details of what the characters are talking about are unimportant to Malick, and he refuses to put them through a three act structure. What he is able to do though, is evoke the emotions of the characters. The film play like memories – the specifics of the argument, the party, the sex, involved is somewhat hazy – but we remember how it made us feel.
For a director so intensely private, he has certainly explored what biographical information we know of him in the last three films. The Tree of Life remains his masterpiece – one of the best films of the decade, a combination of the epic and intimate – exploring the history of the world, alongside the history of a single family (Malick’s). His follow-up, To the Wonder, worked best when it was exploring a failed marriage (again, Malick’s) – and the brief respite in the middle of the movie, when the male protagonist (Ben Affleck) is actually with a woman he loves – before trying with his wife, who he is ill-suited for, again. It stumbled in a subplot involving Javier Bardem as a priest, visiting the poor people in Oklahoma – which struck me as condescending, and I don’t think the connection between love and faith that he was striving for every really worked. Knight of Cups is set in present day Los Angeles, but is based on Malick’s time there as a screenwriter in the 1960s and 1970s – as he wonders from one party to the next, one beautiful woman to the next, looking more like a zombie than anything else. There are scenes of his family, and we recognize the character types that the father, mother and brother from The Tree of Life, just decades later, still repeating the same patterns.
The film stars Christian Bale as Rick, the screenwriter, who is in every scene of the movie, but doesn’t really seem to do much. Malick has often cast actors purely for their physical presence – sometimes aggravating them (Colin Farrell complained that Malick saw him as nothing more than a “fucking osprey” when filming The New World), but Bale (who co-starred in The New World), clearly gets what Malick wants, and delivers it. It’s not a great performance – it may not even be a performance at all, really – but it is perfect for what Malick is doing in the film. For that matter, so is the series of beautiful women who enter and leave Rick’s life. Often, the details of what happened, what went wrong, are left out – as he drifts from Imogen Poots’ wild child, to Frieda Pinto’s model, to Teresa Palmer’s stripper, to Natalie Portman’s married woman, the details of these women are lost in the film. That doesn’t even mention the various other women, who we often glimpse for just a few moments – sometimes naked, sometimes, not. The only one that comes close in Cate Blanchatt, playing Rick’s ex-wife, who is the only woman we really hear on the soundtrack, in those ethereal voiceovers, expressing her regrets (we get a little from Portman to, actually). I know some find Knight of Cups to be sexist – or at least clueless about women, and that’s fair enough – you cannot argue that Malick’s camera doesn’t see these women as beautiful objects, because it does. But that is also kind of the point, as Rick drifts from one to the next, without ever bothering to see them as real people. He’s an empty shell of a person, drifting from one experience to the next. Some of those experiences seem like fun – the parties, filled with celebrities, who often just enter the corner of the frame, and then move on, for example. But they are just an escape. Occasionally, his agents will show up and talk about money, and jobs – although we never see him working. His apartment is nearly empty – two robbers come in, and complain that they have more stuff in their place, and they’re poor. His family enters – his brother (Wes Bentley), angry, and trying to recover from a suicide attempt, his father (Brian Dennehy), stubborn and intractable, his mother (Cherry Jones), ethereal and fragile. Even in these scenes, Rick seems more like an observer than an active participant.
For about the first 90 minutes of this two hour movie, Knight of Cups works wonderfully, drawing a portrait of an empty man, leading a hollow life, where he should be happy, but clearly is not. The cinematography, by three time defending Oscar champ Emmanuel Lubezki (Lubezki is one of the best cinematographers in the world, but how the hell has he won three Oscars, and none of them for a Malick movie?), is wonderful. The film works – it gets to you, lulls you under its spell. But then, the movie repeats its cycle at least one too many times – its point has been made, perhaps already more than once, and then Malick belabors it a little bit, and the film sputters a little coming down the stretch. It regains a little for the very end of the film – which is really a beginning – but it does feel a little drawn out.
I do have sympathy for those who wish that Malick would go back to something more narrative based than his last few films. The Tree of Life maybe the best film of his career (it, at least comes close) – but To the Wonder and Knight of Cups are easily the least of his films. Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), were all beautiful film, filled with stunning cinematography and Malick’s dream/memory like imagery – they also had larger stories to tell, and characters to explore. By the evidence of the last three films, Malick has lost all interest in doing that now. Maybe, he’ll turn back towards that in the future (the films are coming much more frequently than they used to), but I wonder if we really want or need Malick to do that. After all, there are lots of filmmakers who are telling stories with three act structures, and character development, etc. There is only one doing what Malick is doing. If we can handle 10 superhero movies a year, surely, we can have one deep dive in Malick’s subconscious every few years, right? As imperfect as Knight of Cups is, I’m glad it’s in the world.