Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer
Director: Terrence Malick
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If The Tree of Life was writer-director-philosopher Terrence Malick's existential rumination on how growing up in Texas relates to the creation of the cosmos, then followup To the Wonder seemed to be about about his failed marriage funneled through star Ben Affleck's wooden gaze. Now, with Knight of Cups, Malick completes the unofficial autobiographical trilogy by focusing on his hedonistic party days as a screenwriter working in Hollywood. Though ostensibly set in the present day, Knight of Cups isn't a film which purports to represent reality or even modern L.A. culture. It is, above all else, a pure Malick movie; wondrously shot, meandering, non-linear, and full of montages featuring unbelievably gorgeous women running, spinning, and frolicking as a shell-shocked man follows after them. In other words, not something that will draw in those who've previously balked at the filmmaker's high-brow pretensions, and maybe even not for those who swooned over The Tree of Life, either. Fans of narrative, actual characters, and humor should also steer clear. This is an art film through and through; made by someone fully invested in his own aesthetic to the point where many will simply claim he's fallen into repetitive self-parody.
However, this criticism, though understandable, reveals a lack of legitimate investment in Malick's more recent diversions. Whereas archetypal imagery and montage were previously used as a way into the past history; (The Thin Red Line, The New World, etc) Malick is now much more interested in charting a reflection of his own life. Essentially, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups are personal collages, and in some senses, works of extreme narcissism. The idea of self-analyzation on such a grand canvas with A-list actors preening around like models in TV advertisements for romantic naturalism should be problematic, but Malick is no imbecile. If anything, his latest film reveals a man (embodied here by Christian Bale's disconnected Hollywood screenwriter) haunted by past mistakes and completely aware of his own hubris.
Working closely with production designer Jack Fisk and three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick creates an alien-like POV vision of Los Angeles; a surreal, frenetic collision of glitzy pool parties, neon-lit strip clubs, and glimmering skyscrapers stretching towards the heavens. It's not that dissimilar from the perspective of the natives seeing Pilgrim settlers for the first time during the opening of The New World. Only here, this isn't a primal paradise but an empty studio backlot; a place where you can have everything but retain nothing. Broken dreams. Dashed ambitions. Banal hedonism. It's all here, and truthfully, such insights aren't novel or surprising. However, coming from Malick, whose preoccupations have always connected to the natural awe inherent in nature, stripping away his muse actually has a fascinating cinematic effect.
Though John Bunyan's Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress is overtly evoked from the outset, Malick is simply using a fable-like setup in order to paint his film as a series of signs and symbols leading to the idea of Los Angeles as a nexus for temptation and self-destruction. Bale's character Rick is a hollow shell; wandering through claustrophobic Hollywood parties, bedding beautiful women, and roaming around dazed across some metaphorical wasteland like Sean Penn from The Tree of Life. Maybe they are the same person. Maybe not. It doesn't really matter. Knight of Cups unfurls like a dream, with Lubezki's gliding camera constantly in motion; capturing mundane glances and simple activities, lingering on the faces of women for whom Rick is superficially intoxicated with, snaking in and out of conversations, tilting toward the sky or panning away from things we expect to see in a traditional movie. It will enrapture some and infuriate others, but it's not something anyone will say is cognizant of the audience. Like all self-regarding artists, Malick makes films for himself and in the case of his last three ventures, tangentially about himself.
This pull toward autobiography and introspection means that Malick's recent efforts have the tendency to play as baffling "tone poems" for the uninitiated, but even a casual glance at the reclusive filmmaker's biography suggests obvious connections here. However, connecting the dots in any kind of literal way is counter-productive since Malick's films exist in the moment and aren't really meant to be intellectualized. This train of thought extends not only to the elliptical visual style, but also to acting and performance, neither of which interests Malick from a traditional standpoint. Bale convincingly sulks and broods. Wes Bentley, as the estranged younger brother, gets to throw tantrums and pal around with Bale on the beach. Brian Dennehy growls, limps, and acts bewildered as the religious father. There's a bunch of women--Cate Blanchett as a betrayed wife, Imogen Poots as a feisty actress, Freida Pinto as a model who refuses Rick's advances, Natalie Portman as a married women, among others--who glide in and out of the proceedings. Of course, these aren't real people so much as they are avatars for shards of half-remembered memories. Rick's throng of manic pixie dream girls (aside from Blanchett's flesh and blood former wife) are simply reflections of a subjective POV; beguiling free-spirits running along the beach or twirling through crowded cityscapes. This is a movie about an old man thinking back on his youth and rearranging the order of things, subtly shifting timelines and playing God. No wonder Malick so often gets compared to a philosopher or filmic deity. He desires to make sense of his life, but finds it all exacerbating.
Perhaps that's why characters in Malick films always speak in hushed voiceover narration. Different voices essentially saying similar things about lost innocence, paradise lost, and finding the light through darkness. We've spoiled Eden. We cannot recognize the glory of our former selves. We've been corrupted. These are all sentiments that flirt in and around the edges of Malick's filmography, and even when voiced by different actors, they are all emanate from one unifying perspective. Could such ideas be accomplished without portentously whispered line readings? Sure. Would they be less Malickian? Undoubtedly. More than anything, though, Knight of Cups is an experience that rejects dramatic meaning or emotional response. It simply exists, flaws and all, and asks that you wrestle with it.