Review: Knight of Cups

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Pure cinema need not be perfect cinema. In fact, imperfections should be welcomed. To expect a work of art, cinematic or otherwise, to be flawless is to petrify it, to suffocate it. Genuine art breathes, carries a malleable life of its own, and is even perhaps undefinable. The more director Terrence Malick has developed as a filmmaker, the less concrete his films have become, deliberately moving further away from conventions of the medium and into purer cinematic terms. In a sense, Malick has been using pure cinema as a means of chasing emotional purity. Strip away all of the needless exposition, and allow your senses to tell the story for you. Knight of Cups is paradoxically both his biggest departure and his deepest dive into his aesthetic interests, whose fruits surely cannot be fully yielded upon a single viewing.

Los Angeles has been captured on film endlessly throughout the decades. If one thought there was no new way to visualize this sprawling, alien city, then leave it to Malick to give new meaning to the City of Angels. This is the primary setting for Knight of Cups, where our protagonist Rick (Christian Bale) finds himself adrift and unfulfilled. He’s a moderately successful screenwriter with a foothold in the industry, but his work clearly bores him. Rick’s family is fractured, with one brother long deceased, another temperamental brother (Wes Bentley), and an aloof father (Brian Dennehy) who had separated from his mother (Cherry Jones). Furthermore, Rick’s past relationships with women are troubled and unresolved, and his current forays are many, but ephemeral at best. He wanders through various lavish Hollywood parties, frequently finds refuge along the beach, and even journeys into the strange artificiality of Las Vegas. Rick is struggling to rediscover his emotional truth, and knows not whether he will find it from some outside force or within himself.

The film derives its title from the tarot card, which ostensibly carries prophetic insights, and Malick uses other card names to provide chapter titles to thematically structure his story. These are the only true narrative achors that we’re provided with, and suffice to say, Malick has no intentions of hand holding. Audiences have been conditioned to consume stories with a familiar visual vocabulary in order to easily follow the events being portrayed on screen. Naturally, when something completely upends those expectations, the reactions will be polarized. Over his career, Terrence Malick has fled from these predictable storytelling methods, and has chosen to emphasize all other cinematic aspects above the dialogue. Body language is given precedence over spoken lines and half overhead conversations. Even the voiceover has become increasingly vague and in some cases, baffling.

It should be mentioned that the human characters in Knight of Cups don’t take a backseat to the visuals. The film might be Malick’s most star studded affair to date, which is something of a shock considering how difficult and nonlinear it is. Malick has somehow always managed to attract A-list talent in his films, and given its LA locales, Knight of Cups has dozens of familiar faces. Rick might not be one of Christian Bale’s most layered performances, but he functions well as an anchor for the audience to project their emotions upon. The film makes a compelling case for how Rick, and indeed all of us, are shaped and perceived by the people who enter our lives. Wes Bentley brings volatility and resentment as Rick’s brother, Barry, and Brian Dennehy shows textures of resentment and regret as Rick’s father, Joseph. The women in Rick’s life are portrayed by several actresses, including Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and Isabel Lucas. It’s telling that the more meaningful relationships come from women closer to his age. Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, Rick’s ex-wife, and Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a woman with whom Rick has an affair, are featured in the film’s most introspective passages. Knight of Cups is populated by dozens of other actors, many of whom show up for single scenes or in some cases merely single shots, but their fleeting involvement gives the film an organic quality.

While Knight of Cups may very well be Malick’s most mystifying film, it is also one of his most adventurous. One of Malick’s many interests throughout his films has been man’s relationship to nature and vice versa, so to see him exploring the endless streets of Los Angeles and to detour into electric intensity of nightclubs in Las Vegas is startling. Disillusionment in these environments is not a new concept, but Emmanuel Lubezki’s ever roaming camera gives each scene a disarming intimacy. Like all of Malick’s work, the photography of Knight of Cups is undoubtedly a highlight, but it’s far more than a collection of pretty images. Any competent cinematographer can compose a beautiful shot, but it’s how that shot is employed in the film that matters most. What truly separates Malick’s films from all the other imitators is the editing. There is no need to cut on action or maintain continuity in Malick’s films, so it allows for the editing to suggest thematic connections in addition to narrative ones. Malick’s editors seamlessly cut from the present to the past, to dreams and fantasies, and therefore, they trust the audiences to make connections for themselves. Knight of Cups has a minimal score from Hannan Townsend, but its primary theme comes from Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus,” which contributes an aural dimension of persistent inquiry to Rick’s endless quest.

The films of Terrence Malick have never quite been meant for all audiences, despite their universal themes and ideas. There’s no doubt that Knight of Cups will only further isolate those who think of Malick as vague, pretentious and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course, for others, every new Malick film brings a sense of discovery and a new lens through which to view the world, and life as a whole. Will Rick find catharsis and resolution in his many conflicts, both internal and external? Does it matter if he does or doesn’t? Passivity is rampant in contemporary cinema, but Malick challenges us to engage with his films. These are not films from which we can take in everything in one viewing. In a culture where we always want answers to everything, Knight of Cups is a film that encourages us to explore and ultimately accept life’s unresolved mysteries.

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~ by romancinema on March 6, 2016.

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