Terrence Malick’s latest film – his third in five years – continues the trend of his recent material, relying less on plot than on the notion of collage. Through the weightless, angelic camerawork of Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant), Malick invites his audience to participate in defining the shape and parameters of his increasingly fluid work. As such his cinema becomes defined by the amount of work the viewer is prepared to bring to the experience; if you’re seeking popcorn directness, the film will seem offensively vague and trifling, but, if you bring a sense of inquisitiveness, there is still a lot to offer in Malick’s work.
Knight Of Cups concerns a Hollywood playboy named Rick (Christian Bale). A disappointment in the eyes of his thespian father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and serial womaniser, the film charts Rick’s search for meaning and fulfilment in a land seemingly too busy distracting itself with thin facades.
Rick is as much an addict of hollow indulgences as those around him, but through his listless wandering and window gazing a regretful ennui builds. He has found himself king of the mountain, but a mountain of what?
Divided into chapters each named after tarot cards (The Moon, The Hanged Man, The Hermit etc), Knight Of Cups drifts, a like-minded piece with Malick’s last two films To The Wonder and The Tree Of Life. On the surface this seems like the work of a man in a sort of holding pattern; he’s found something he finds striking and he knows how to assemble it, and it would be easy to condemn him for staying within a perceivable comfort zone. The subject matter of Knight Of Cups has a tendency to feel gossamer light, as Rick wrestles with the most featherweight of first world problems. At least, that’s what you see on the surface. Yet there’s a greater search for spirituality and meaning at work here, beyond religious questions of belief to more fundamental questions of purpose. It’s an existential crisis playing out on film.
Often we find Rick staring out of windows at a world that is perpetuating without him. For all the nominal suggestions of his influence and of his vivacious sexual appetite, he feels decidedly impotent. A powerless king. He watches a police chase on television. The overriding sense is of detachment; life goes on around him, without him. He observes where he could be participating. “You don’t want love,” Imogen Poots’ Denna tells him, “You want a love experience”. It’s a telling dig at a cultural obsession with preconceived lifestyle choices. A branded, consumable lifestyle rather than something tangible or genuine.
The film is a swirl. When Rick’s ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) enters the picture one wonders if we’re witnessing flashbacks or their re-acquaintance. Possibly both. One begins to feels as though the whole of Knight Of Cups is happening in a single moment. That, despite it’s chapter headings, it is not a linear film, but rather Malick continuing to use cinema to visualise the mind, or even a whole body. Those great glass windows Rick stares out of are the eyes. The women it’s fluttering heart.
Rick’s experiences take place in the company of a variety of different women, and the film has come under fire in some circles for the lack of depth afforded his lovers and fleeting conquests. It’s a criticism that lands to a degree only, as everyone here is sketched in the vaguest of terms. And Rick’s companions are distinctly different from one another; there’s Poots’ aforementioned glowering gothic wallflower; Freida Pinto’s more spiritual Helen; Teresa Palmer’s hedonistic dancer Karen.
Rick’s encounter with Karen at a strip club plunges the film into cool neons reminiscent of recent work by Nicolas Winding Refn or Harmony Korine, but Malick’s graceful eye brings these locations a more forlorn appearance. Nevertheless, Karen clearly represents Rick falling back on easy distractions as she urges him to embrace the moment and not the consequence. Duly the film transitions from Los Angeles to Las Vegas; an even greater house of cards.
It is here, however, that Knight Of Cups finds some of it’s most memorable material. Malick finds poignancy in a nightclub scene. He almost feels like a documentarian; his subject is pure, fleeting hedonistic sensation. Karen’s abrupt disappearance from the narrative is befitting her character’s spontaneous existence. No doubt she’s still out there, chasing the sun and moon around the skies from dawn to dusk and dawn again. Rick returns to Los Angeles and begins an intense and passionate affair with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). The locations change to art galleries as the two of them refocus on finding greater meaning and deeper truths, even as they seem preoccupied only with one another.
But largely this is a LA story, and the geography of Knight Of Cups is frequently metaphorical. Malick places Rick in locations that befit his state of mind. So often all he finds is emptiness. The danger of looking for the profound in the eternally desolate is that you’ll only ever end up staring at yourself, standing alone in what feels like infinity. Knight Of Cups feels like a film born of frustration with Hollywood’s broken promises. As such, it’s easy to understand how some audiences might be frustrated by its taciturn nature. The film feels both substantive and almost hopelessly thin. Through Rick’s gaze (and therefore Malick’s) it presents us a culture of people trying to approximate heaven with their endless soirées, their swimming pools, their fashion shoots and glimmering towers, only to discover how boring heaven must be; how profoundly empty and ridiculous.
For better or worse, that’s exactly how Knight Of Cups feels. And for better or worse, this is what Malick does now. He filmed his next feature concurrently with this one. It’s unlikely he’ll be stepping far from his present comfort zone for the time being at least. If you begrudge the nature of the man’s work from the outset, there’s little here likely to change your mind.