"'Love and do as you please,' that's what Satan said," states one of Rick's many lovers in voice-over in the latest film by Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups (2016). That phrase guides much of the direction of the film, as it opens with Rick (Christian Bale) going through the motions of the party life he once knew... the party life he can't escape. This isn't a tale of redemption, but more-so a series of vignettes tracing the inability for one to be redeemed in a modern world.
Rick is a Hollywood screenwriter who is searching for meaning and purpose in his own life and the world around him. He's the ultimate playboy – driving fast cars, attending lavish parties, and entertaining beautiful women with every step he takes. Throughout much of this, Rick is akin to a somnambulist as he sleepwalks through life – merely the Giorgio Armani-wearing shell of a man whose personal life is in shambles. Fueling this idea that Rick is in a state of crisis is his inability to speak. Sure, he has occasional lines of dialogue here and there, but he is internalizing everything – uncertain of how to respond or if he wants to respond at all. This isn't a film about words (as there are hardly any scenes of back and forth dialogue anywhere to be found in Knight of Cups), but instead it's about experiences – a film in which we can judge the character of a man by his actions.
Voice-over, delivered by an unseen presence in the film (Ben Kingsley), serves as a loose guide for interpreting Knight of Cups early on. The opening voice-over establishes that Rick is on a quest as he is compared to the protagonist of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress – allowing us to realize that there will be trials and tribulations along the way. Similarly, Rick's journey is also aligned with a legend from the Acts of Thomas concerning a prince in search of a pearl who is offered a cup to drink from that makes him forget that he's the son of a king and that he's on a quest to find a pearl as well. It is said that the king continued to try to make contact with his son, but that was a challenge in itself... like the call of God to his children who wander in darkness. Never fully defining the parallel between the prince being sought after by his father in the way that God strives to connect with those who are lost, Knight of Cups benefits from the thematic ambiguity which could've been too heavy-handed otherwise. This is not a film about absolutes, but such ideas expressed in loose terms strengthen the theme of the film allowing for the audience to actively excavate their own meaning along the way.
Prior to The Tree of Life (2011), Malick had focused exclusively on the past, recreating the 1950s in his directorial debut Badlands (1973), the post-World War I frontier in Days of Heaven (1978), Guadalcanal during World War II in The Thin Red Line (1998), and colonial life in Jamestown in The New World (2005). Much of The Tree of Life takes place in 1950s America, but it's a loose flashback from the present in which Sean Penn's character recalls his childhood on the anniversary of his brother's death. Beyond the 1950s, Malick goes as far to depict the creation of the universe in a tangental flashback near the beginning of The Tree of Life. To The Wonder (2013) is the first Malick film set entirely in the present, yet it is primarily in the suburbs of a rural state – a film in which the restaurant Sonic is an exotic location. Finally, we arrive at one of Malick's most stunning milieus: present-day Los Angeles and Las Vegas in Knight of Cups.
The location and contemporary setting in Knight of Cups lends itself nicely to certain aesthetic ideas that Malick has been experimenting with recently. The opening shots in To The Wonder were pixelated video from the travels of our protagonists – a departure from the natural beauty that Malick's work has often been associated with. It turns out that the pixelated video was from a handcam being used by one of To The Wonder's protagonists, but in Knight of Cups the pixelated quality of consumer digital cameras (GoPros, etc) is a part of the look of the film. It's a film set in a modern era, captured in a new and fresh way. GoPro cameras follow characters as they leap into swimming pools, run on the beach, and drive in convertibles filled to the brim with women. These driving sequences are never filmed in a conventional cinematic way either (the camera facing through the windshield so that we can see Rick's face), but instead the camera is in the back seat filming the back of Rick's head as if we're in the car with him. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki compliments the narrative style of Knight of Cups in that the camerawork evokes an experience. We are along for the ride in nearly everything that Rick sees and does, and the occasional pixelated shot is far from a distraction, but simply another texture on the screen – as if we're watching a YouTube playlist compiling a few weeks in the life of Rick.
Malick's imagery and usage of consumer cameras has an aesthetic immediacy that, when combined with a more traditional cinematic look (35mm or 4k digital), breathes and enhances the speed of the narrative. From the beginning, Knight of Cups has a natural momentum that cannot be stopped, and the seamless transitions between digital, film, and consumer digital adds to the kinetic energy of the film as it is endlessly interesting. Yes, the look is comparable to recent work by Jean-Luc Godard, like In Praise of Love (2001) or Adieu au langage 3D (2014), but Malick utilizes it within his regular world and is crafting a different kind of assault on the senses than the pedantically self-reflexive musings of the consistently brilliant Godard.
Complimenting the juxtaposition of filmic formats is one of Malick's regular themes: the butting of heads between the natural world and the world of man. In Knight of Cups, this dichotomy is crystal-clear. The palm trees line the streets, the windmills cross the desert, and airplanes and helicopters soar through the air while pelicans struggle to get off the ground. Near the opening of the film, Rick's world gets shaken up... literally. His lamp on his nightstand and other decorative items begin to quiver with a growing rumble from the Earth's tectonic plates while Rick sleeps. Progressively shaking more violently, Rick is awakened, and hops out of bed as his lamp shatters on the floor. Outside, potted plants fall from balconies onto the sidewalk below, and people are keeping low to the ground as the aftershocks reverberate through Los Angeles. The natural world is at odds with the world of man... a world that man cannot conquer or control.
Perhaps all of the visual experimentation has also brought out a more mischievous side of Malick, as this film has some comical visuals and situations, as well as a particularly hilarious line during a fashion shoot in which the photographer tells a beautiful female bodybuilder "you're like a 1975 housewife who takes steroids and fucks girls during the day!" It's not so much that Malick is cracking outright jokes (with the housewife joke and another line being key exceptions), but this film exudes a sense of joy that isn't always as palpable in Malick's other work. It's a sensation of ecstasy that is actively at odds with Rick's quest, but Rick's problems cannot be solved if he's going to continue living in the decadent metropolitan community that he inhabits... Does he want them to be solved? That's a question better left for Rick to continue figuring out for himself.
My rating: 4.5/5