Knight of CupsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/10/16 16:23:32
If ever there was a filmmaker completely unsuited to be working in today's hot take world, where every piece of popular culture is meant to be publicly critiqued and ranked the very second it is consumed without giving it a chance to sink in at all, it is Terrence Malick, whose wildly works have been puzzling viewers since the day that his first film, "Badlands," appeared in 1973. His films are deeply personal, contemplative works that require a certain amount of time for viewers to marinate on the sometimes overwhelming rush of images and ideas in order to hopefully gain a better understanding of what he is attempting to say. That is even more the case now that his cinematic style has moved beyond the already tenuous grasp on conventional narrative structure displayed in films like "Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World" to such increasingly enigmatic efforts as "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder" and is especially true in regards to his latest work, the long-awaited "Knight of Cups," a film destined to leave even his most ardent fans scratching their heads in utter confusion immediately after watching it for the first time. And yet, as muddled and bizarre as it may seem at first glance, there is something truly striking about it and those willing to mull it over for a while and perhaps give it a second viewing are liable to finally come away from it thinking that they have indeed encountered greatness, albeit the kind of greatness that you might not necessarily recommend to any close friends or loved ones unless you know their moviegoing tastes really well.This may sound like I am hemming and hawing or trying desperately to find a way to justify recommending a film that I might have summarily dismissed as pretentious junk had it come from practically anyone else other than Malick but I can assure you that it is true. I am one of those of the conviction that Malick is one of the supreme filmmaking artists of our time--I even liked "To the Wonder," a film that many of his followers struggled with--but as the lights came up in the screening room after the showing of "Knight of Cups," I was, for the first time in regards to watching a Malick film, unsure of what I had seen. Yes, it had a number of arresting images and ideas on display but no obvious narrative thread to tie them all together. Instead, he presented a collage of sounds and images that overwhelmed without explaining themselves and which skirted dangerously close to the edge of self-parody. And yet, as I got a little distance from it over the next couple of days, I found it sitting stronger in my memory as its weaknesses began to fade. Happily, I was able to watch it a second time and with that screening, possibly because I had a better idea of what to expect the second time around, it finally began to click with me. Granted, I would not necessarily rate this as one of Malick's greatest works on the level of "Badlands" or "The Tree of Life" but it is far better than most anything else playing commercially right now and there are moments so audacious that it feels as if you are watching cinema being reinvented before your eyes.
So what exactly is "Knight of Cups" about anyway? I was afraid that you were going to ask that because this is not the kind of film that lends itself well to a one or two paragraph summary. Following a recitation of the opening lines of "The Pilgrim's Progress" by Sir John Gielgud and a view of the aurora borealis as seen from the vastnesses of space, we are introduced to Rick (Christian Bale), who recounts the tale of a knight who was sent out West by his father in search of treasure and while on that quest, he was served a mysterious and intoxicating brew that caused him to forget everything--his quest, his family and his self--and to spend the rest of his days as though lost in a daze. As it turns out, Rick himself is pretty much the contemporary analogue of that knight--years earlier, he ventured to the West--Los Angeles, to be exact--to become a screenwriter and while he has clearly done well for himself, he too finds himself spiritually and emotionally adrift, alienated from his family--his broken-down father (Brian Dennehy) and his volatile brother (Wes Bentley) and the ever-present spirit of another brother whose suicide years earlier fractured the bonds of those left behind--and from himself. Nothing gets to him--not even an earthquake or what has to be one of the oddest movie industry shindig ever captured on film. (The guest list includes, however fleetingly, Antonio Banderas, Joe Manganiello, Ryan O'Neal, Fabio, Jason Clarke, Nick Kroll, Thomas Lennon, Joe La Truglio and the proverbial many, many more.)
As for that intoxicating brew that has helped to keep him drifting unmoored through his own existence, that is represented in the form of a number of alluring women who drift in and out of his life, seemingly at random. There is Della (Imogen Poots), who looks like the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl (remind me to send Nathan Rabin a quarter) but who may be wiser than she appears to be at first glance. There is Helen (Freida Pinto), a model that he meets at a party, Karen (Teresa Palmer), a good-natured stripper with whom he spends a few idyllic days taking in the deliberately artificial sights of the Vegas strip, Nancy (Cate Blanchett), the ex-wife with whom he had no children and who quickly grew tired of his extended malaise, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a married acquaintance whom he got pregnant and who is devastated by the guilt she feels and Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a beautiful blonde who he spots at the beach and whose golden beauty holds out the promise/curse of the future and all it holds. There are other women who pop up from time to time to further entice and distract him--one-night stands, party pickups and even evidence of at least one threeway.
Although divided into sections (each titled, like the film itself, after a Tarot card) as a way of bringing superficial order to what might otherwise be chaos, "Knight of Cups" is as freeform as any film ever made by a major American filmmaker--with its collection of random imagery, non-linear narrative and a preference for the visual over the verbal (there is precious little dialogue to be had in the film and of that, most of it comes in the form of voiceovers instead of two people simply talking to one another), the closest thing I can think of to compare it to are the latter-day efforts of Jean-Luc Godard like "Film Socialisme" and "Goodbye to Language" that have seen him attempting to rip apart the entire filmmaking apparatus and remake it into something that is both universal in scope and achingly personal in tone. Even if you didn't know going in that Malick was working more or less without a formal script--he would supply his actors with ideas and the odd line of dialogue and go from there--it would not take very long to realize that he was pushing his impressionistic filmmaking approach to unheard-of levels. Compared to this film, even such free-form experiments as "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder" feel like the works of David Mamet by comparison.
In the case of virtually any other film that wasn't an explicitly experimental work, such an approach would be a recipe for disaster--the kind of thing that you might see only in an exceptionally broad Hollywood spoof of crazy artist types--but in "Knight of Cups," it actually works kinds of beautifully once you settle in with its peculiar rhythms and refusal to follow the tenets of traditional narrative. As we follow Rick on his aimless path, we begin to get a true sense of his essential rootlessness and dissatisfaction towards an existence that most people would kill to have--a life that not even money, fame and the company of some of the most beautiful women imaginable can provide significance. In much the same way that we are observing Rick as he goes through the motions of his life--studio meetings in which art and commerce do daily battle, Hollywood parties in which bullshit banalities flow as effortlessly as the champagne and his various assignations--Rick is experiencing them in a similarly detached manner that suggests a highly internal person who has managed to find himself in a world in which virtually everything is external. Malick beautifully captures this sense of ennui throughout and even though most moviegoers might not exactly relate to the specifics of Rick's existence, they will recognize that sense of long for some kind of place in the world. It may not be a sensation that they necessarily want to spend $10 to see on the big screen but it is there. Indeed, it is fascinating to watch Bale, usually one of the most controlled and focused of actors, playing a character as adrift as this one.
In regards to the women on display in the film, some have criticized Malick for presenting them as little more than ciphers who are asked to do little more than gambol around in flowing dresses while allowing Rick (and those of us in the audience) to drink in their undeniable beauty while denying them their own agency or, in a couple of cases, their own names. Admittedly, I am a sucker for a pretty face or six but this charge is unfair on a couple of counts. For one, Malick treats the women in the same way as he treats Rick--as incredibly attractive vehicles for his various themes instead of as fully developed characters--and therefore makes it a far more palatable playing field than if he were the wise sage and they were the pretty ciphers who have no existence outside of their connection to him. (If that had been the case, this would have been nothing more than a film version of the Eagles song "Take It Easy" and we all know how painful that could be.) More importantly, and this is one of the many aspects of the film that are revealed on a second, they are not quite the gorgeous empty vessels they seem to be at first glance. The Blanchett and Portman characters, despite their brief screen time, are vividly etched portrayals of the potentially devastating results of falling into Rick's orbit and, to steal a phrase, the unbearable lightness of his being. The Pinto and Palmer characters--the model and the stripper--speak wisely and lucidly about their seemingly frivolous occupations and what they mean to them. Even the Poots character--who seems to be a walking (and skipping) cliche at first glance proves to be wiser than she seems, at one point correctly diagnosing Rick by observing "You aren't looking for love--you are looking for a love experience.")
I notice that I have been spending most of this review trying to explain what "Knight of Cups" means--a foolhardy task at best because, like a great Bob Dylan song, it is the kind of thing that will mean different things to different people at different points in their lives and to try to nail it down to one specific explanation would be to reduce it somehow. What I haven't talked about yet so much is what an overwhelming sensorial experience it is to watch. Working again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with whom Malick has collaborated since "The New World," and shooting in a variety of formats that include HD, 35mm and 65mm, the two offers up a barrage of striking imagery throughout ranging from the overtly gorgeous to the intriguingly off-kilter. More than just a series of arresting imagery, they manage to take locations as familiar as Los Angeles and Hollywood parties and present them in a manner that forces viewers to look at it anew and perhaps to even find the beauty amidst the banal facades. All of this is driven by a score that incorporates the usual Malick musical suspects (Griefg, Chopin and Part, among others), new music from Haran Townshend (who composed music for "To the Wonder") and even a few contemporary dance beats for good measure. The end result is an oftentimes stunning audio-visual experience of the sort that is rarely seen these days."Knight of Cups" is a one-of-a-kind work by a one-of-a-kind filmmaker--one who combines the technical expertise of a veteran at the peak of his creative powers and the restless and inquisitive nature and riskiness of a newcomer with nothing to lose--that grows and grows in stature in my mind every time I think about it. However, as most singular cinematic experiences go, it is clearly not for everyone and as I said earlier, even Malick's most fervent supporters may come away from it thinking that his detractors may have a point after all. As much as I love it, even I hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly to others because those who do not find themselves connecting to its strange and particular wavelength are almost certainly going to find it to be baffling at best and downright enraging at worst. That said, if you are one of those brave souls who enjoys watching films that are not afraid to push the boundaries of what art can say about the human condition and are willing to spend the time grappling with it afterwards, perhaps to the extent of giving it a second or third look, then "Knight of Cups" is something to watch and treasure.
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