Can Terrence Malick still surprise us?
Knight of Cups is Malick’s second film after his 2011 masterwork, The Tree of Life, which was a triumphant embodiment of the aesthetic and thematic concerns he’d been exploring for decades. To the Wonder, from 2013, was a smaller-scale, more intimate examination of the same. Would we finally get something new with Knight of Cups, with Christian Bale as a Hollywood screenwriter adrift in a fog of desire and self-loathing?
There was one image that truly startled me in Knight of Cups: an underwater shot of a dog diving into a pool, its jowls bared and teeth exposed as it snaps, in slow motion, at an elusive ball. The moment has a quality that Malick’s images usually do not: it’s playful, instinctive and free from the weight of symbolic intent. For all his reputation as a filmmaker open to the process, willing to throw out the script and simply follow his actors around with the camera, Malick’s films — even the best ones — have a pregnant and portentous air.
Of course, this being Malick, that dog’s feral pursuit of the ball could also stand in for the animalistic yearning that Bale’s character, named Rick, experiences. The movie’s voiceover narration (yes, Malick returns to that) recounts the story of a prince who went into Egypt in search of a great pearl, but fell into a “deep sleep” instead. It’s clear fairly early on that Rick is the prince and Hollywood is Egypt, and that he has fallen asleep (“We’re not leading the lives we’re meant for,” a character tells him) because he’s mistaken sex, drugs and other earthly pleasures for this elusive pearl.
We’re used to Malick characters running their hands through fields of grass; here they reach out to dingy storefronts.
The simplistic moralism of this framework carries over from the narrative to the use of the camera. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki work in a variety of formats here, from traditional 35mm film to digital GoPro cameras. And although it’s not an ironclad strategy without exceptions, in general they use celluloid to capture images of pristine nature — the desert, say, or a beachfront — while digital cameras are used for scenes of debauchery. The editing scheme shifts too, so that Malick’s familiar and soothingly fluid jump cuts are employed during those nature scenes, while there are more frequent, frantic and disorienting cuts for sequences set at a nightclub or a party.
An unfortunate side effect of working within this strict dichotomy is that it reduces many of the characters to binary figures — especially the women. In Knight of Cups, the women characters are either tempting devils (including some whose heads are literally cut off by the frame, so that we only see their naked bodies) or wise mother figures. Indeed, a case could be made that Malick has often used women in the way that other films have employed “magical negro” figures. Knight of Cups features an impressive lineup of actresses — Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Cherry Jones— yet their only function is to offer wisdom and care to Rick. Like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost or Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, these women are wise sages whose sole purpose is to guide the hero along his journey.
To be fair, Knight of Cups opens with a reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress, and is itself something of a similar allegory — certainly much more so than a character study. Taken on these terms, the movie is an undeniably artfully crafted tale of a soul lost, and possibly found. An earthquake sequence, in which the camera disconcertedly swerves as Rick falls to his knees and clings to the ground, queasily evokes the idea of a man who has lost his bearings (indeed, it does so more effectively than the party scenes with decapitated nudes). Knight of Cups also intrigues as the rare Malick film that gives time and attention to urban settings. We’re used to his characters running their hands through fields of grass; here they reach out to dingy storefronts. Elsewhere, the concrete highways of Los Angeles loom with a foreboding beauty, while a throwaway shot of a glowing parking garage at night might be one of the most startlingly luminous images that Malick has ever put onscreen.
That shot captures one of Malick’s ongoing obsessions — the intermingling of ugliness and beauty. Yet most of the movie eschews such subtlety, preferring instead to inflate one man’s privileged angst to mythical status. Knight of Cups ultimately stumbles under the weight of its strident, symbolic imagery, associative voiceover narration and opaque performances. I wouldn’t say Malick has succumbed to self-parody (for that see The New World), but he hasn’t found a new way forward, either.