***1/2 out of ****
for some nudity, sexuality, and language
Released: March 4, 2016 limited; April 8, 2016 expands
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas
(Available to rent through Amazon Video)
There’s an image early on in Knight Of Cups (well, a brief montage, actually) that stands as a perfect metaphor for Rick (played by Christian Bale) and his existential struggle – and no, it’s not the earthquake, but that could work too. (Rick, it should be noted, is a Hollywood actor who readily avails himself to the decadent bacchanalia his world so easily provides.) It’s helpful to find these cues in a Terrence Malick film, as his movies can seem unfocused, abstract, impenetrable. He may be from Texas, but his style is decidedly European. But if you can find a key, even one that seems random on the surface, well, it unlocks the whole thing.
The montage is a series of dogs, individually, as they dive underwater. Each dog swims after a ball that plummets down into a pool. The dogs go after each ball vigorously, getting their teeth and jowls on the edge of the prize but never around it. For each dog, the ball remains elusive. Try as they might (and boy do they try – augmented in slow-motion, no less), they can never get a grasp on the one thing they desire most.
For Rick, the prize isn’t any of the carnal excesses. He gets those, easily. Rick is grasping for things those pleasures can’t provide: fulfillment, purpose, peace, meaning. He longs for these things, desires them, pursues them. They’re in the relationships he can’t sustain, the self-denial he has no discipline for. He’s searching for clarity, but from an equivocal posture.
Even when clarity comes (which is late in the two hours), there’s a sense that Malick is holding back. This isn’t the full conclusion he’s come to. It’s just one. He could say more but doesn’t. It’s because he knows the value of asking, of wrestling, and that people can come to their own, better, necessary epiphanies if he doesn’t spend half the movie doing it for them. The answers aren’t just humanistic, they’re cosmic. They’re beyond ourselves. That’s where answers, and purpose, are found.
Rick is in spiritual crisis. He’s on a dark journey, but not an inherently doomed one (note an early reference to Pilgrim’s Progress and that book’s “desired country”). Rick is at odds with the universe and his place in it – past, present, and future. But that’s natural, because not only is he in a Terrence Malick movie – he’s the Malick surrogate.
Knight Of Cups is the contemplative, brooding third chapter in an unofficial personal trilogy for Malick that began with The Tree Of Life and continued with To The Wonder. The first was inspired by his childhood, the second by Malick’s first two failed marriages. Those films can’t be reduced to semi-autobiographical synopses, mind you; they’re too philosophically ambitious for that. But they were born from those seasons of the director’s life. In Knight Of Cups, we find Malick as the result of those seasons: a Prodigal.
We also find him at his most “Malick” yet. Knight Of Cups further abandons any sense of traditional cinematic structure, language, or form, finally obliterating narrative once and for all. This isn’t just another “tone poem” from Malick (as his films have been commonly characterized). That term suggests an evocation of the poetic. This is a poem, flat out, and at feature length. Or perhaps not one epic poem but rather a book of them, each one defined by distinctly labeled chapter titles.
But the poems – which, more truthfully, are a collection of Rick’s memories about his closest relationships, all failed or unresolved – are thematically connected, musing the same void. Characters are rarely heard speaking, but always thinking. We see and experience them primarily through Rick’s own introspective lens, as he reflects, working out the past in his mind. That perspective occasionally shifts to the other person in those relationships. They inform us about Rick, beyond what even he knows about himself. We’re not being told the story of his life. We’re floating though it. His impressions (and theirs), emotions, questions and conflicts. And they’re big ones. The biggest.
Two of the key relationships are with women (Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman), likely the two women he ever truly loved; no doubt a thematic extension of To The Wonder. Then there’s also – perhaps predictably, if you’re familiar with Malick’s recent work – a father and a brother; no doubt a thematic extension of The Tree Of Life (it’s easy to view Brian Dennehey and Wes Bentley as older variations of Brad Pitt and Tye Sheridan from that 2011 epic). As Rick takes stock of them, their value, and their indictments of him, we see how consuming all that the world can give (the material) causes a person to miss out on what it can’t (the spiritual). “I suppose that’s what damnation is,” Rick’s father says. “The pieces of your life never to come together…” To be fleeting is to lose meaning.
But how do we gain meaning? Even (or perhaps especially) when our life has been filled with hollow pursuits? Malick’s conclusion is nothing short of monastic: we find meaning in suffering. “To suffer,” a priest says, in one of the final chapters, “binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world, to find what lies beyond it. We are not only to endure patiently the troubles He sends,” the priest concludes, “we are to regard them as gifts. As gifts more precious than the happiness we wish for ourselves.”
Indeed. It’s a conclusion the film earns, even through long stretches where – despite being able to play an ongoing game of cameo-spotting – the viewer may wonder if there’ll be a point to all of this (a reaction that is, in itself, another of the film’s points). We see the contrast of pleasure and suffering throughout. The famous walking among the homeless. The beautiful, and then the burned. From the Vegas Strip to a Tibetan Retreat.
It’s all there to excavate an internal holocaust, Rick’s and possibly ours, and its spiritual wake (Malick even utilizes the main theme from Exodus – the story of the post WWII creation of Israel, which starred Paul Newman – as a recurring underscore). Pleasure may take us where we want to go, but suffering has a way of guiding us where we need to go.
I’d mentioned that Knight Of Cups is divided up into chapters, with titles like “The Moon”, “The Hermit”, and “Judgment”. One near the end is called “Death”. But, perhaps fittingly, Death is not the final chapter.