Film Reviews

Knight of Cups Terrence Malick

Rating - 7/10

At one point in Knight of Cups, the newest feature in Terrence Malick's period of newfound prolificacy, the voiceover of Christian Bale's Rick enters simply to say, "Ahh... life." It's this kind of philosophical posturing that turns people away from the latter portion of Malick's career, where he's only become more unapologetically himself as a filmmaker. Anyone who's seen these films knows what that means: a constantly roving camera, unconventional editing, the prevalence of poetic voiceover rather than dialogue, and plot being out of the question. But the film is also unwaveringly Malick in its subject matter, which documents a Hollywood screenwriter's search for meaning and connection in a landscape that provides neither.

Knight of Cups will inevitably, and rightly, be criticized for wallowing in the dissatisfaction of Bale's character, whose problem seems to largely be that his life is too easy to take on any purpose. It reeks of self-indulgence and disconnectedness, but there's a far more empathetic and meaningful core to Malick's ruminations than those descriptors imply. The film recognizes that Rick's problems are those of the rich and self-absorbed- at one point, a character says that his life is "like playing Call of Duty on easy," and Rick's mother tells him he should have had children so that he would have had to think about somebody other than himself. Malick's intent here is to disavow the capitalist idea that money and stability will guarantee happiness, to show that meaning in life is found in other people rather than in money and success. On paper, it sounds hackneyed and corny, but Malick communicates so completely and artistically that he manages to pull it off.

These other people include Wes Bentley as Rick's suicidal, hotheaded brother and Brian Dennehy as their neglectful father, bringing to mind the daddy issues at the heart of The Tree of Life. Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer and several others appear as Rick's various romantic interests, giving us insight into his desires and his need to have his life injected with meaning by women. Malick's handling of these women, as a revolving line-up of beautiful creatures measured mainly by their influence on Rick, is certainly questionable. It's almost suitable, however, for a movie about someone so self-centered, and Malick's insistence on keeping things vague and existential prevents any of these characters from taking on much depth, so it's hard to specifically criticize his female characters for that reason.

Even if viewers aren't taken in by many of Malick's ideas, his typically astonishing filmmaking should do away with the idea that what he's doing here is easy. Master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, working with Malick for the fourth time, supplements his gorgeous L.A. environment with digital home-video footage, used to evoke a more idyllic time in Rick's life. Malick's Los Angeles is shown as being composed of the same soulless, sanitized structures as the unnamed city of Sean Penn's character in The Tree of Life, confirming his antipathy towards human infringements on his beloved natural world. He shoots the film so that the story appears to be taking place in between the cuts, with what we see on the screen acting more as hints to what actually takes place. He also returns to pet motifs such as the cleansing power of water and the promise of religious salvation, though the film never feels like a retread of his previous work. Malick's mastery of cinematic building blocks is so complete that he can essentially do away with them at this point, resulting in an intoxicating collage of sound, image and meaning more than a coherent story.

The film's title refers to a story related to us by an unseen narrator (Ben Kingsley) about a prince sent to Egypt to find an elusive pearl who forgets his past upon drinking a liquid given to him by the natives. The metaphor of Hollywood's corruption of the soul here isn't hard to sort out, but this isn't a Tinseltown critique à la David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Nor is it a study of the struggle to create art suggested by Rick's status as a screenwriter (whether Rick is intended as a proxy figure for Malick is another, more complicated question). It is, however, a study of the divide between waking dreams and reality and of the desire to derive a singular meaning from the conflicting, inconclusive emotions and circumstances of life. It's a document of a search for spiritual redemption that suggests that it might only be achievable by starting over. It's a sometimes maddening, always thought-provoking, occasionally transcendent tone poem. In other words, it's a Terrence Malick movie.