After an entire career of pastoral meditations, be it in the familiar heart of Americana (Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Tree Of Life, To The Wonder) or in strange lands whose virginal mystery gradually wilts and dies at westerners’ touch (The Thin Red Line, The New World), Terrence Malick has moved out of the woods and into Hollywood’s urban jungle of glass, concrete and light. That is, sadly, the only truly significant evolution visible in Knight Of Cups, which sees screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) wandering pensively across wild parties and fleeting girlfriends without experiencing anything previous Malick characters haven’t gone through before in more meaningful ways.
Avatar-protagonists are a dime-a-dozen, but it’s unusual to see one illustrate his creator’s limitations with such sad accuracy. Having taken his audience on very personal journeys through fictionalized memories of his childhood and past relationships in The Tree Of Life and To The Wonder, Malick now appears lost in the maze of his own mind. Instead of seeking out new paths or conscientiously retracing his steps in search of missed details, he is now going around in circles, repeating the same points over love, faith, life and death he made more succinctly and insightfully in his last two films as if he were discovering untouched gems of truth.
Sons in conflict with their father over the death of an unseen sibling, lovers meeting and parting like ballet dancers, a priest musing on the existence of God and why he allows suffering, all as various characters state their thoughts and questions in voiceover… The same familiar scenes and ideas play out as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera positively dances around the characters, never quite managing to extract the fresh emotion and grace that inhabited their original versions.
In his efforts to ponder the existence and nature of God, Malick seems to have unwittingly made himself out to be God, observing everything from an entire continent’s city lights to a couple’s most private moments. Through the use of classic symphonies, wide pans of landscapes and metaphorical voiceovers, the most intimate of struggles takes on a biblical proportion: one couple’s romance carries the weight of all the love in the world; a family quarrel becomes a planet-altering tragedy. This exacerbation worked in The Tree Of Life and To The Wonder because every bribe of intimacy, every awe-inspiring vision balanced each other out. The resulting juxtaposition – of human love with divine love, of one family’s life with the history of life itself – turned human experience into a symphony in which every note inscribed its corresponding emotion and action within a greater significant whole, reminding us of how simultaneously small and extraordinary our lives are.
That harmony is missing from Knight Of Cups, which accumulates images of loss, heartache and debauchery without forming a single connection deeper than a causal one. Thus scenes of Rick’s deadbeat brother (Wes Bentley) violently arguing with their father (Brian Dennehy) or Rick’s married lover Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) ending their affair over a pregnancy of uncertain fatherhood remain nothing more than simple melodrama. If Malick were content to let these moments speak for themselves, allowing their beauty to blossom independently of the narrative’s Big Ideas, that would not necessarily be a problem. Unfortunately, the voiceover has a tendency to outline the characters’ feelings and thoughts too neatly, particularly when it involves Rick’s brother and father, leaving little room for interpretation, not allowing them to take a life of their own. Despite the aura of mysticism and esotericism Malick has wrapped himself in to the point of suffocation, the sad irony is that there is very little mystery to be found here.
Rick himself never rises above the level of navel-gazing cliché: A screenwriter lost in the emptiness of Hollywood excess, finding temporary solace in the arms of beautiful women and parties thrown by his rich friends, all while wondering where he went wrong. No matter how often the voiceover tries to dress it up with metaphorical fairy tales, this character’s story is as shallow as the culture and industry it purports to critique.
Knight Of Cups works best when it drifts away from Rick and his immediate family to give us temporary glimpses inside the lives of tertiary characters. Like D. W. Griffith before him, Malick isn’t as interested in the study of individual people as he is in capturing the life that emanates from them, and he does so beautifully in the “Judgement” segment, in which Rick meets up with his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett). Despite the segment’s title, her attitude and words convey more compassion, regret and thankfulness for the time spent together than they do judgment towards him. Similarly, scenes with Freida Pinto’s Helen – an aspiring model/actress Rick meets on a photoshoot and briefly dates – tease the possibility of a “normal” healthy relationship that never comes to fruition. This unfulfilled, half-formed promise lends poignancy and meaning to Helen’s enigmatic nature; unlike most of the film’s female characters, she is neither a fantasy nor a concept, but rather a full person whom we only get to see in incomplete fragments, trapped as we are in Rick’s slanted perspective.
It’s most disappointing to see an artist as uniquely sensitive as Terrence Malick deploy so much energy and fanfare to catch what amounts to only a few wisps of truth in the wind. For most of its running time, Knight Of Cups brings to mind its creator’s illustrious predecessors, as well as lesser-known works of autobiographical storytelling such as Jonas Mekas’s miraculous As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses Of Beauty, all while producing beautiful shots in search of their own significance.
Dir: Terrence Malick.
Scr: Terrence Malick.
Cast: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Cate Blanchett, Wes Bentley, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas
Prd: Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green, Ken Kao, Elizabeth Lodge, Hans Graffunder, Glen Basner, Tanner Beard
DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editing: A. J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Geoffrey Richman, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: Hanan Townshend
Running time: 118 min
Knight of Cups is in cinemas now.