Terrence Malick’s cinema, particularly those films produced within this decade, place unusual demands on a viewer. With a relaxed obligation to plot (something that could be considered threadbare in The Tree of Life to nil in Knight of Cups) and an experimental sophistication that rejects traditional formalistic notions, the apostasy from the Church of Malick seems to be increasing in membership with every passing film. Those who maintain a rigid allegiance to his earlier films, Badlands and Day of Heaven, will likely have continued doubts of Malick’s visionary gifts with Knight of Cups. But those who have accepted and embraced his new visions of distorted realities, spiritual crises, and existential anxieties in The Tree of Life and particularly To the Wonder will be further moved by Malick's continued expressionistic experimentalism. Knight of Cups is a canonical work that further solidifies Malick’s position as the most significant figure in contemporary American cinema.
As with any perceived “difficult” or experimental work, there’s a lot to unpack with Knight of Cups. It’s the kind of film that will undoubtedly reveal more of itself with every viewing, and one that would most certainly benefit from as many theatrical experiences possible- as is the case with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Knight of Cups’ aural and visual qualities benefit from being seen on the largest screen possible at the highest volume setting. For now, I consider the following thematic thread lines found in what is, essentially, a plotless film:
1) The frailty of our ecosystem and its existential consequences
2) Identity and the material curse
3) The social capital of experience; yearning to experience “experience”
Rick (Christian Bale), functioning as a Malick proxy, is the vessel whereby we view much of Knights of Cups’ visual/auditory provocations. Rick’s a successful (in the fiscal sense) Hollywood screenwriter contending with the death of his brother, a strained relationship with his father, and a messy romantic life. In what’s one of the numerous visual connections with The Tree of Life, Malick often unites Rick’s disenchanted sprees of excess with the roaring tide. It’s a perpetual suggestions made throughout Knight of Cups, wherein the fear of absorption by the world is a constant one – the voiceover narration, whether it be by Rick or an omniscient third-party, acknowledges an anxiety of being swallowed whole by the Earth. A passage of the film involves a Los Angeles earthquake strong enough to rattle Rick out of bed. The tectonic shift takes Rick outside as he places his hand on the ground, bracing for the aftershock as plant pots fall from patios. This occurs early in Knight of Cups, establishing a framework whereby Rick walks through the wilderness of the world on unstable grounds: “Where did I go wrong?” he asks, as he reflects on his sprees of debauchery and the women he used to ascribe some measure of meaning to his life.
From the modern trappings of his apartment to the decadent mansions that host many of the films Hollywood gatherings, the superficiality of these milieus is glaringly obvious. They are excessive to a fault and highlighted by the beautiful people that populate them. Reminiscent of recent forays of hedonistic excess such as Spring Breakers or The Great Beauty, what Malick does in establishing these milieus better than the aforementioned films is to convey their inherent isolation; these orgies of flesh consume Rick in the same way that the tides drown him, in the same way the Earth can open up and swallow him whole. Yet that’s where Rick’s identity resides, within the confines of the material. In a telling moment, Rick’s apartment is ransacked, with burglars questioning Rick at gunpoint as to why there’s nothing of value within such chic trappings. It’s a curious suggestion on the relative worthlessness of what Rick surrounds himself with, of the emptiness that the material provides the wounded and disconnected.
“No one cares about reality anymore”, says Helen (Frieda Pinto) somewhere in the middle of Knight of Cups, a line that articulates Malick’s central thesis most succinctly. As Rick recounts his experiences with women and Sybaritic excesses, he finds himself constantly striving for a love and embrace. Yet the women that he encounters are of a variety that expose Rick’s propensity for the hollow. Early in the film, Della (Imogeen Poots) attempts to cajole Rick out of his somnolence, recognizing his weaknesses and eventually calling him out on his material bullshit: “You don’t want love, you want to love experience”. It’s what all the male characters in Knight of Cups have in common, this perpetual need for material as an indicator of experience. Take Tonio (Antonio Banderas): he hosts one of the film’s many parties and treats his guests as if objects to be moved. A passing remark suggests his love for the company of women while flippantly noting that sometimes his taste, his flavor, for women can change quickly: “There are no principles, just circumstances”.
And there’s Rick’s sojourn to Las Vegas, a significant locale shift that epitomizes everything artificial – where people vacation with the specific intent of submitting to vice. It’s here where Rick and his current flavor encounter a pimp who notes that he “sees beautiful women, big cars, and lots of money and wants to be a part of it”. This echoes a similar sentiment had by an investment firm representative who attempts to sell Rick on the appropriate way of utilizing his wealth, “You wanna climb your stairs or their stairs”. Both instances unite shallow concepts of wealth with their terrain: Malick frames Las Vegas as a vacant lot with superficial neon lights erected like tombstones. The same low angle is applied to large corporate skyscrapers, signaling a connection between both worlds. Their consumer ideologies as a means of experiencing are of the same facile variety, of a death to one’s free will.
It’s Rick’s awareness of how cosmetic, how vicarious, his interactions with the world and the women he encounters that inspires self-reflection. And it comes partly through his interaction with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). Mistaking passion for love, the two seem prepared to weather just about any storm until another tectonic shift occurs in the form of a pregnancy. Whether the child is Rick’s or Elizabeth’s husband’s is never clarified, but it does jostle Rick out of his stupor, inspiring careful reflection on his own strained relationship with his father. What follows is a literal reemergence, a beginning.
These thoughts on Knight of Cups scrape a thick skin, not even remotely close to cutting to the marrow of what this remarkable picture offers after just a single viewing. Some lingering thoughts that a rewatch could answer/confirm: as formally experimental as the film may be, I would suggest that it is likely Malick’s most carefully calibrated. The vignette device that he ascribes deliberately stages moments for maximum dramatic effect. The grammar and syntax of his film language is changing but the effects are nonetheless primal, bordering on pure emotion. This is also reflective in his editing, moving seamlessly from scene to scene in what genuinely replicates a sense of pure, sensual movement. And that’s not to mention Malick’s deployment of music, most notably with how Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus track is used in such stunning fashion. These are formal details that are so singular, so uniquely aligned to what Malick does as a filmmaker that it’s remarkable to think that his kind of experimental work is receiving any kind of distribution at all. Like David Lynch or Wes Anderson, there’s not an American filmmaker making the kind of films that Malick is making – his cinematic idiosyncrasies demand an audience.