Terrence Malick remains an enigma. First, the reclusive director vanished from the filmmaking landscape for two solid decades between his sophomore effort Days Of Heaven and the acclaimed The Thin Red Line. Then, he returns with a new movie every other year from 2011’s The Tree Of Life on, after never having spent less than five on every other previous feature. Knight Of Cups, which reunites him with erstwhile Batman Christian Bale, is the third of these experimental narratives that Terrence Malick has put out in a relatively short span of time. Given the frenetic working pace, can the director continue his run as the film buffs’ darling or has he finally run out of steam with his latest output?
Rick (Christian Bale) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter whose life is at crossroads. He leads a shallow existence and feels empty inside. Little by little, he remembers the important women in his life, in non-chronological order. There are his former wife, the physician Nancy (Cate Blanchett), Della (Imogen Poots), the stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), the model Helen (Freida Pinto), as well the married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who may or may not have been impregnated by him. While the memories of these ladies occupy most of his time, his thoughts also circle around his deceased brother Billy and the difficult relationship with his critical father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and other brother Barry (Wes Bentley).
In an off-screen voiceover, Rick mentions that he often feels as if he had been living someone’s life, that of an alien. His statement puts Knight Of Cups in a nutshell. The protagonist often gives the impression that he is a stranger in a strange land, as if he didn’t belong to the superficial Hollywood world at all. That sentiment is reinforced by him appearing out of place at his model friend Helen’s photoshoots or when Tonio (Antonio Banderas) throws a pool party at his giant estate. In a way, most of the audience should be able to relate to Rick, for Terrence Malick’s vision of Hollywood isn’t glamorous. Virtually all of the backdrops – Las Vegas, the hotels and skyscrapers – evoke a glimpse of artificiality where you simply can’t feel at home.
Then again, Christian Bale’s character also makes it somewhat difficult to truly empathize with him. While we receive more background information on Rick than on some of the director’s previous protagonists, he remains but a sketch. ‘You can be whatever you want,’ the mantra of his Las Vegas stripper girlfriend Karen, is particularly unsettling in this regard, because it speaks to the artificiality and superficiality of this world as well as Rick’s apparent uncertainty of what he is and what he desires to become. The main character is the eponymous Knight Of Cups, a tarot card embodying the romantic, soul-seeking hero with an unknown quest, although you can argue that he is probably more of a pilgrim or biblical ‘prodigal son.’
Somehow Rick can also be regarded as the director’s surrogate, a free-spirited drifter who is both associated with the Hollywood glamour and a fish out of water in such surroundings. While Terrence Malick seems to be able to recruit pretty much whichever stars he wants for his projects nowadays, none of his recent endeavors have been shot on a large budget or distributed by a major studio. Likewise, none of his former films were set in the synthetic concrete-and-steel universe of the big cities. Malick occasionally harks back to those movies in Knight Of Cups when he contrasts civilization with nature, for instance by juxtaposing a swimming pool and the ocean. As gorgeous as those shots look, however, they sometimes feel as empty as Rick.
In fact, most of the characters do not go beyond the sketch level, especially the females. Perhaps this has been Terrence Malick’s intention all along. As the pamphlet from the movie’s Berlin Film Festival 2015 world premiere states, the women ‘represent different principles in life: while one lives in the real world, the other embodies beauty and sensuality.’ The notable exception is Nancy, his ex-wife played by Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, who may have been his only real love and the only meaningful relationship outside of his family Rick has ever had. Everything else appears to either stay on the surface or vanish in the midst of all the magnificent shots courtesy of Malick’s longtime collaborator, the renowned Emmanuel Lubezki.
Regardless of what you may think of the (fairly conventional) narrative, Knight Of Cups is another audiovisual feast. It is as if the genius behind it all had a sheer inexhaustible pool of material to work with. Like a mad scientist, he meshes new scenes with archive footage in a montage tour de force that would make Sergei Eisenstein and company proud whilst embellishing several of those sequences with classical music once more. The problem with that approach is that the characters remain hollow and the actors seem to be underused at times. Maybe that has been Terrence Malick’s idea all along, to hammer home how disorientated Rick really feels, maybe not, but the transcendental spheres of the director’s former films seem mostly out of reach here.
On his pilgrimage, the Knight Of Cups travels through rather mundane places, a netherworld of sorts where all spirituality has been long lost, as gorgeous as these settings may look on first glance. Perhaps that is why it occasionally feels very difficult to sympathize with him the way the viewer can with the more relatable Neil in To The Wonder. In comparison, many of Rick’s issues appear to be first-world problems that, probably, a good percentage of the audience would happily trade for. Purely in filmmaking terms, however, on the technical side of things, Terrence Malick is still on top of his game. He continues to deliver two-hour treats for sore eyes and ears. Does that make Knight Of Cups a particularly good movie? You decide.
Seen at Orfeo’s Erben, Frankfurt am Main, on 17 September, 2015.