“You’re still the love of my life. Should I tell you that?”
The evolution of Terrence Malick is a fascinating one. From regular narrative structure to voiceover-driven epics to visual poems, his style has been stripped down to beautiful imagery and pithily obtuse dialogue sending us on journeys as much about ourselves as they are about the characters onscreen. Many believed his last film To the Wonder was a sign of decline—hours of improvised footage cobbled together during post-production into something wholly different than how it began—but I still held fast in my support of possibly the greatest artistic mind working in the medium today. Despite its loose, meandering trajectory this tale held focus on a volatile couple and powerful love. His latest Knight of Cups appeared to pick off right where that one left off.
Centered around a screenwriter in the midst of an existential crisis, Malick uses and is inspired by The Hymn of the Pearl, A Tale of the Western Exile, and The Pilgrim’s Progress—three pieces of literature I know nothing about—to send Rick (Christian Bale) on an adventure towards the great unknown in search of answers that may or may not even exist. His brother Billy recently committed suicide while their other brother Barry (Wes Bentley) is aggressive in temper and unwilling to embrace his pain. Dad (Brian Dennehy) has turned to God and begun ranting incoherently with something irreparably broken inside him and ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) wonders what went wrong in their marriage. Rick simply stands watch and experiences their actions in quietly reserved contemplation.
And why wouldn’t he when the rest of his life is hobnobbing with people as empty as him, feigning smiles to fit in as each new lady friend makes way for the next. Love is obviously both his strong suit and weakness—he falls hard but soon becomes bored and uninterested while different, more exotic “flavors” (as Antonio Banderas‘ Tonio calls them) come into view. There’s the rebel (Imogen Poots), the model (Freida Pinto), the stripper (Teresa Palmer), the adulterer (Natalie Portman), and the youthful savior of which we barely see a face (Isabel Lucas). Rick dances around them in flirtatious delight to juxtapose against his unwavering stoicism in the face of familial strife: happiness and joy driven into the pavement by the difficulties of responsibility.
Does this make a movie? Does a story exist? I’m not saying a movie needs to possess a coherent story or even an incoherent one, but it does need purpose. I’ve yet to discover what that could be amidst the always-stunning cinematography from Malick regular Emmanuel Lubezki and pretty people floating about their environments captured at an almost consistent twenty-five degree slant. I think we’re supposed to see what it is to find who we are underneath the material gain and myriad friends of all shapes and sizes. Rick is searching for that pearl—that light shining inside him that he should be sharing with the world—but he keeps getting distracted. Pain, sex, longing, and indifference all converge to set him adrift without a paddle.
The truth is, though, that I never cared for Rick as a person. I couldn’t feel sorry for this guy who literally hides from the tragedies of his life that need him by filling the void with meaningless flings opposite unavailable women consisting of no substance. The titular tarot card means “change” and “new excitements of a romantic nature” when dealt upright. This Knight brings opportunity but is bored and in need of stimulation—he’s a dreamer. But if the card is reversed this Knight is reckless and fraudulent. I guess Rick is in flux between these two extremes, but what does this allegory mean to his character and to me? Not much beyond the surface. Unfortunately, the rub is that Malick may not care about what’s below.
He appears to have really embraced the improvisation this go-round to make Knight of Cups an experiment first and foremost. He didn’t prepare his cast, was withholding to them as far as who would be in what scene, and passed along cryptic pieces of paper (as relayed by Thomas Lennon) with random phrases that the actor could use or not use at their discretion. “There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.” That’s what Lennon received before eleven hours of made-up conversation spent strolling about a palatial estate with Lubezki in tow. Malick’s response to those silly enough to ask how they were doing? “Great. It’s all great.” As frustrating as this is—to perform and watch—I can’t help but be impressed by his dedication to spontaneity.
It’s just too bad I couldn’t infiltrate these machinations to find something worth grabbing hold of like I usually can with Malick’s divisively memorable works. Maybe I tried too hard. That’s how much I love his films—I’m willing to take full blame. Why else can something that seems on paper to be so similar to his last two (the masterpiece that is The Tree of Life being the other besides To the Wonder) turn out so hollow in comparison? Perhaps his long post-production schedules have made it so that what was unique and breathtaking six years ago is only a shadow today. I’m going to chalk it up to the scope of Rick’s extended menagerie of acquaintances and Malick’s desire to let most narrate and therefore overwhelm.
When Dennehy’s voice is heard I actually felt enlivened because he brought an authoritarian presence to Bale’s listless profundity. But then we hear Poots—then Pinto, Blanchett, Palmer, etc. Suddenly ten different characters are playing storyteller and I didn’t know who to listen to or who to empathize with. Each was at a different stage of crossroads, each a different stage of love, longing, and promise. This brought a sense of excitement except for the fact that the man they revolved around was the least interesting of all. We always had to return to Rick, his bored nature a constant source of my own boredom. I hoped someone would shake him from the doldrums, but maybe his perpetual languishing at the bottom of his psychological mountain was intentional.
Knight of Cups‘ one success is making me feel happy my life isn’t as fabricated and empty as his. It made me think of the relationships I have with friends and family that prove symbiotic and worthwhile while his are constantly kept at arm’s length. This life of wealth and beauty is lonely no matter how much surrounds the person in the middle. There’s this great expanse to adventure and see, but Rick will always be shackled to the bright lights and loud music of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This world has consumed him. It’s captured his attention with its shiny allure and he’s fallen prey to a promise that’s never fulfilled. He’s forgotten his home—his soul—for good. That pearl is ultimately lost forever.
Rating: R | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: March 4th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Broad Green Pictures
Director(s): Terrence Malick
Writer(s): Terrence Malick