Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman
Spoilers Within: No
Critics of Terrence Malick’s recent output all hark on about the same thing: his films are little more than self-indulgent commercials featuring beautiful people in beautiful locations, far removed from his unalloyed classics The Thin Red Line and Badlands. While these detractors aren’t entirely mistaken (his post-hiatus releases are indisputably different) this is too basic a criticism of his unique, deliberate deconstruction of cinema: a practice that justifies seeing his name amid auteurs such as Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Kubrick.
The third part of a loosely connected trilogy, Knight of Cups builds upon the format from The Tree of Life and To the Wonder: tangentially linked stories of differing personalities coming to terms with their place on Earth in response to an unsettled past. This time, Christian Bale’s Rick guides us through a listless existence as he gradually acknowledges the toll that decades of hedonism can have through a series of unplanned encounters with strangers, from a rebellious youngster (Imogen Poots) who lives for spontaneity, to a meeting with an unscrupulous playboy (Antonio Banderas). Unsurprisingly (at least, if you’ve seen the first two of the ‘trilogy’) the story plays second fiddle to the character’s visual odyssey of self-discovery.
Malick has rarely been one to communicate his views with broad appeal, and this abstractness in Rick’s autonomous pilgrimage is undeniably the reason that so many have walked out/turned off before the credits, but this steadfast commitment to breaking down cinema’s composite parts deserves attention. There have been many directors both past and present that have either taken advantage of the progress in cinematography; adopted delicate voice-overs to express story; or relied on a muted, simple structure to critical acclaim, so why can’t there be a director whose principal aim is to disregard convention by breaking with tradition? More to the point: the way Malick has pursued this narratively sparse, daydreamy approach to storytelling inspires the notion that abstraction needn’t be void of emotion: though his characters and story remain at a distance, they still tap into the global desire to find beauty and significance in the ordinary.
For the past half-decade, Malick and Oscar-winning collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki have advanced their kaleidoscopic visual expression in such a way that the combination of breathtaking metropolis and natural scenery with sudden, invasive close-up shots never feels jolting, allowing Lubezki to use his skills to visibly portray a snapshot into these characters lives. This skill also lends a poetic flow to Knight of Cups that helps it drift through the (admittedly lengthy) 2 hours: scenes course elegantly into one another, while each new character acts as a rock in a stream, halting the flow of Rick’s life with a crash and a surge of human interaction in his narcissistic world. Rick isn’t a nice character per se, nor is he as misunderstood as Malick would like you to believe, but what he is is sympathetic. To some degree, we all accept the philosophical basis of existentialism, and though Rick’s past may not be one that we are fully in accordance with, we can recognise that moment in his life – the moment where we encounter him in his story – where he needs to search for authentic, individual meaning through a series of obsessions and trysts. It’s not our place to determine what’s right and wrong about his chosen direction.
I understand why cinemagoers belittle the way Malick’s storytelling has purposefully distanced itself from the mainstream as well as his own, original style, but for me, this serene blend of Ron Fricke’s Baraka/Samsara or Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (along with numerous other audio/visual documentaries) relaxes me and transports me to a state of consciousness that few filmmakers are able. Knight of Cups may have a meandering style, a blatant lack of clarity, and an aura of vacuity with these often lousy socialites, but these make the tranquility of the story far more alluring and poetic; a rhythmic, elegiac tone that will see me return time and again to Malick’s sedate trilogy.