Terence Malick may be my favourite American filmmaker. I’ve seen six of his scant eight movies, four of which I consider to be unassailable masterpieces that speak to me very personally, one of which is merely ok, and the last being a solid ?????. It’s a pretty impressive track record.
Anyway, I’m interested in talking about that ????? one, by which I mean 2015’s Knight of Cups. It got a pretty bad critical thrashing upon release, and I’m not yet sure if I’d even say that it’s a good movie. But it is a capital I Interesting movie, the kind where even the ways in which it goes wrong are kinda fascinating.
Within the first few minutes we know that it’s about Rick (Christian Bale), a Hollywood screenwriter who is climbing the heights of success, but finds himself spiritually empty and so tries to lose himself in all the hedonism and erotic intrigue that Tinseltown has to offer, which has the effect of him feeling even more hollow. Direct references to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are made, etc.
Again, we pretty much get this from the opening sequence, and the rest of the movie is, in essence, an extended elaboration of this, in the absence of any real structure.
A lot of Malick’s previous movie break the rules of narrative filmmaking, but once you adjust your expectations, it becomes clear that there is a narrative, however eccentrically told. You know that it was shot with a script and an overarching vision to it, regardless of how much that got transformed and reworked during the process. Knight of Cups does not, strictly speaking, have a narrative. It’s a huge mass of semi-improvised footage (some of it on a GoPro camera) edited together into something resembling a structure (I think its predecessor, To The Wonder, did something similar, but even that one feels relatively linear by comparison).
You often hear filmmakers figuratively described as attempting to “paint a picture”, but here Malick really is just trying to paint a picture rather than tell a story – it just happens to be a moving picture. Even the movie’s division into several acts, each focusing on a particular relationship Rick has (and each named after a Tarot card) feels like the most token thing ever, inasmuch as there’s no real narrative logic within them or between them.
I actually find this approach to be fascinating, and I’ve long wanted to see a movie that just so completely jumps down that rabbit hole as Knight of Cups does. And Malick, with his keen visual sensibility, is probably the best bet to pull it off. Although I recognize that I’m probably in the extreme minority here, and that even if we call Knight of Cups a success on its own terms (and I’m not sure if I can), it isn’t a good movie by most conventional definitions of that phrase.
It’s always arresting to look at – Malick and DP Lubezki manage to make contemporary L.A. feel as weird and haunting as anything out of Blade Runner, Final Fantasy or any other fantastical setting you can think of. Actually, on that note, at times it almost feels like you’re watching someone poke around with an unfathomably expensive open-world video game. For someone with an aesthetic as pastorally oriented as Malick’s is, the urban world can’t help but look alien, and it sells Hollywood as a metaphorical Egypt that has enslaved Rick’s soul (while the absence of narrative itself also paints his own fragmentation quite well).
Soul is the key word here, as Knight of Cups isn’t interested in Rick or any of its other characters for the purpose of character study (they’re all paper-thin), but for their theological significance. If the Pilgrim’s Progress references weren’t enough, the movie even trots out a priest at one point to give an elaboration on the notion that God allows our souls to be troubled and dissatisfied so that we will ultimately seek and find rest in him. There are lots of artsy movies about successful people who are spiritually dead inside; this is the only one I’ve seen that seemingly wants to function as a Kierkegaardian essay on despair and the necessity of faith in the transcendent.
It takes some real chutzpah to do that sort of thematic heavy lifting with an aesthetic that tries to be as spontaneous and off-the-cuff as possible. I can’t say if it ultimately works as coherent art, but it’s fascinating to watch Malick try pulling it off.
This all hit a little harder than I was expecting, because it wound up reminding my of my undergraduate years, even down to some of the specifics of Bale’s performance. You see him wandering through all these raves, parties and skeevy bars with a mixture of boredom and sadness, because that’s what people like him are supposed to do to have fun, and he wants to have fun and to be seen as a fun guy, and there must be something really wrong with him if he’s not having fun.
Which describes to a T what I was doing back then; that experience of meaninglessness, and the attempt to paper over it through sex and sensuality and the construction of a “fun,” partygoing social persona that people would love. And then just feeling increasingly alienated from myself and others as a result. My younger self was a lot like Rick; just gayer and less glamorous.
Knight of Cups gets kinda raunchy at times, which is something I never expected to find in a Malick flick (even his other movies which have a romance front and center never show any interest in being titillating). It’s a little jarring to morally bemoan cheap, meaningless sex while still kinda leering at it. And that dissonance felt personal too, because I am the kind of person who morally bemoans cheap, meaningless sex and decadence, but in the most reluctant, backwards-glancing manner possible.
Dang it, Malick.
Admittedly, I also found my patience being tested at points throughout. I mean, I appreciate weird avant-garde cinema as much as the next guy, but there are only so many scenes of Bale at a beach, looking sad in an expensive suit that a guy can take in a two-hour sitting before getting a little fidgety. Or that endless party sequence with Antonio Banderas. But then again, this is also a movie which devotes an entire sequence to dogs diving into pools in failed attempts to catch a ball, which is amazing and hilarious.
I guess my point is that Knight of Cups is made up of so many disparate elements about which I feel mixed things – enthrallment, annoyance, reverie, boredom, disappointment. The sum of all the parts is a little less than satisfying, with the movie not so much ending as it does just fade away. And, admittedly, Hollywood bigwigs are just intrinsically less interesting to follow around than, say, two lovers on a murder spree or a battalion of WWII soldiers. I wonder if that’s on purpose: there is something to the idea of deliberately making your movie about the vanity of worldly pleasure and success something frustrating and unsatisfying to watch, a sensory smorgasbord that ultimately fails to coalesce.
Or maybe Malick bit off more than he could chew, and made a visually magnificent, but fundamentally broken, conflicted and incomplete movie, like The Phantom Pain of Malick flicks (there’s a tagline for you). What I’ve sketched out above kinda sounds like the most impossible movie ever, and maybe it is.