Written by Daniel Simpson
They say absence makes the heart grow stronger. I’m not sure if that’s true in relationships, but it might be true when it comes to artists. Case in point; filmmaker Terrence Malick. For most of his career, Malick has moved at a very slow pace, most famously emphasized by the 20 year hiatus between sophomore effort Days of Heaven and his World War II epic The Thin Red Line. However things have changed in the current decade, with Malick producing films at a way faster rate than before. In the last five years, Malick has already directed three feature films, a documentary, has another film due next year, and is working on yet another film with a thus far unknown release date. This accelerated pace has seemed to come at a price though as the critical reception to his work this decade has become increasingly frustrated. 2011’s The Tree of Life may have been declared a masterpiece by many, but his follow-up, 2013’s To the Wonder, was met with disappointment and indifference. Given Malick’s abstract style, he and his work have often been a little divisive, but To the Wonder marked the first time any of his films had been met with downright negative reviews. A similarly fate befell Malick’s newest film, Knight of Cups earlier this year and while I can understand the divided response, one thing we should not be doing is taking this film for granted.
Knight of Cups set in modern day Los Angeles and follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter who none the less finds himself disillusioned and unsatisfied with his life. Rick tries to fill his life with earthly pleasures, particularly women, but is constantly disconnected from the world him. The film explores this by depicting his relationships with a few key individuals, notably his ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett), his brother Barry and father Joseph (Wes Bentley and Brian Dennehy) a model (Freida Pinto), a stripper (Teresa Palmer), an eccentric playboy (Antonio Banderas), and a woman whom he had an affair with (Natalie Portman), among others.
I started this review speculating that the increased criticism of Malick’s recent efforts are a result of overexposure, but I would be remiss to not discuss the ways in which his new works are different from his classics. For as abstract and non-narrative driven as Malick films are, historically they still have had clearly identifiable stories. Badlands was about a pair of lovers on a killing spree, Days of Heaven was about a pair of lovers scheming to seize a wealthy farmer’s fortune, The Thin Red Line was about the Battle of Mount Austen, and The New World was about the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. With The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick has further distanced himself from plot and focused more on simply observing the basic lifestyles of his subjects, albeit against a backdrop which placed their struggles within the context of the natural world around them. Knight of Cups not only embraces this style of filmmaking, but in fact pushes it further. While there is some sense of what has happened between Rick and the various people he interacts with, the film is quite often very vague regarding the details of what transpired and the film doesn’t come to any concrete conclusions either. Very few conversations are actually heard, and what bits come through are mostly vague lines which, though thought-provoking, do little to illuminate the details. There is narration, but this too takes the form of lofty prose (sometimes directly quoting works like The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of Western Exile). As such, the film on its surface can seem very meandering and those who dismiss Malick’s work as “pretentious” will no doubt have a field day with this.
Indeed, the story progression in Knight of Cups is very minimal but that shouldn’t be confused for a lack of substance. The in fact seems to be a natural continuation of both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. It borrows the exploration of a man dealing with the death of his brother from the former and the troubled/failed relationships from the latter. However while The Tree of Life was more interested in placing the experience against a cosmic backdrop and To the Wonder in exploring the relationship itself, Knight of Cups is interested in how these experiences shape an individual. What happens to a person after a person has gone through such hardships? In the case of Rick, it has led to him being aimless and trying to numb his pain with sex and admiration efforts which only make him feel emptier. Such material might seem clichéd in a lesser film, but Malick’s abstract style makes it so these ideas are not told or even presented to a viewer, but rather are felt. However this can be viewed more simply as a sort of modern La Dolce Vita; a story of a man surrounded by excess trying to find some happiness and figure out where he fits in the scheme of things. Humanity’s place in the world has been a dominant theme in Malick’s work, perhaps most purely expressed in The Thin Red Line (where humanity’s place is juxtaposed with nature’s) and The Tree of Life (where one person’s struggles is placed against the entire history of life on Earth). Knight of Cups expresses this theme in a way that is smaller scale, but none the less speaks to the anxiety of where we fit in to the world.
Knight of Cups also feels like a very personal film from Malick. Malick is notoriously secretive and he also isn’t one to pontificate on what his movies represent, but there are some insights to be gained. Malick’s own brother died in the late 1960s in a believed suicide and this is the second Malick film to address a man struggling with the loss of a brother. Additionally, it is believed that the turbulent romances depicted in To the Wonder were somewhat inspired by Malick’s own history and similar sort of relationships return here as well. The notion of Rick as analogous to Malick is further strengthened by the fact that Rick works within Hollywood, but is in fact an outsider who doesn’t really fit in the system. In fact, I almost wonder if the film is partially about Malick before he started directing. Prior to Badlands, Malick actually did find some success as a screenwriter on various projects before wanting to express himself more fully. Perhaps Rick’s own disillusionment stems from his own inability to express himself. That reading is a bit of a stretch and is also probably full of holes, but I don’t doubt that Malick’s own Hollywood experiences informed Rick and his journey. That isn’t to say that I think everything depicted in the film comes from real life incidents, but real life feelings.
It almost feels pointless to talk about the technical filmmaking of a Terrence Malick film given how well-crafted his films have been from day one, but there are some new insights to be gleamed. The feeling of a weightless camera persists and there is once again a feeling of natural beauty, but this time the source of this beauty is seldom the natural world. While there are some really nice landscapes, oceans, and the like, the focus here is really on the modern word. Buildings, roads, urban interiors; it’s all very striking. It’s neat to see Malick apply his visual sensibilities to the man-made world and it’s also interesting that he’s able to find a similar visual beauty here as he does in nature. The film is aided by a memorable score by Hanan Townshend which evokes the very myths the film draws upon.
It’s funny, I’ve had a somewhat rocky road with Terrence Malick. I’ve always admired his craft and his ambiton, but his films always left me a little cold and I could never quite embrace them. Or at least that’s what I thought. The fact is his works have stuck with me in a way I never would have expected and I find my esteem for his films rises with time. In that sense, Knight of Cups hit me at exactly the right time and provided an experience that really resonated with me. That said, I do understand why the reaction to Knight of Cups has been so divisive. The film does feel somewhat incomplete in that it never really closes out Rick’s arc. But I also wonder if Malick is still building to some sort of conclusion. The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups all feel intimately connected and his next movie was filmed at the same time Knight of Cups was. Perhaps that film (or one after) will unite all of this phase of Malick’s work in a way where everything will just click together. I suppose time will tell, but even without proper resolution I still think Knight of Cups is worth celebrating. This is thought-provoking cinema which isn’t afraid to take some major chances and its technical execution is sublime. It’s a film I found extremely compelling and am already eager to revisit it at some point in the future. If nothing else, I think the film deserves to be seen and considered. Even if one sees it as a failure, then it’s an epic failure that plunged ahead with fearless artistry and ambition.