Illinois Man of Mystery
As a filmmaker who tries his hardest to ensure that no one can speak his name without using the word ‘mysterious’, Terrence Malick makes films that can only be interpreted with the vaguest speculation. His latest film, Knight of Cups, stars Christian Bale as a screenwriter who seems to spend all his time wandering around Hollywood, going to parties, and frolicking on the beach with beautiful women. As with his two most recent films – The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012) – it’s a highly stylised and abstract affair, with lucid cinematography from art-house darling Emmanuel Lubezki, and editing as chaotic as anything Malick has ever done. Keeping up a forty-year tradition, the director hasn’t done any press for the film, and he will likely spend the rest of his life refusing to talk about it.
But for a filmmaker who usually expects his films to speak for themselves, he’s been strangely generous in providing some jumping off points with which to interpret Knight of Cups. For instance, the film is littered with excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian text, and the title is a reference to tarot cards, which are commonly used in occultist practices (the film is divided into ten chapters also named after tarot cards). This balance of heaven and hell is highly appropriate for a film about a man attempting to find meaning in a city known for its decadence, and the six women he spends time with represent various forms of sexual or romantic interests; each one is a variation on the Madonna and Whore complexes.
A voiceover narration suggests that Bale’s character, Rick, came to Los Angeles in search of a better life (scenes with his brother and father indicate a troubled upbringing), but has since lost his identity to the spoils of the Hollywood lifestyle. Tellingly, the Knight of Cups tarot card that Rick embodies symbolises a character that dreams, is artistic, and provides opportunities to those around him, but the flipside is that it can also signify fraud and recklessness. His ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett), articulates these contradictions while lamenting the dissolution of their marriage, and Malick makes it the basis of the narrative: the artistic dreamer has created a successful life that the reckless fraud is in danger of destroying.
The crux of this setup is that Rick has to navigate his relationships with women in order to regain some sense of satisfaction in life. If it all sounds rather lofty, it’s only the tip of the iceberg; even the references to other texts don’t come close to decoding the elusive narrative of Knight of Cups. What’s more, The Pilgrim’s Progress is hardly a central feature in the film, and tarot cards themselves can be interpreted in various, often-contradictory ways. These reference points are just as slippery as Malick himself, who would allow his viewers to completely misinterpret his films forever just so he could avoid having to tell them what his inspirations were. Looking back over his filmography, however, it seems that the themes that he’s always worked with have reached some sort of head-on conclusion in Knight of Cups, almost as though the film were a sequel of sorts to his reportedly autobiographical The Tree of Life.
Writing about Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) in 2002, Simon Critchley pinpointed the three major themes of that film as loyalty, love, and truth. Each theme gets its own vaguely defined hour-long act within the narrative, and each theme is informed by the one before it. This is arguably the most transparent instance of theme in Malick’s work to date (if only because it’s one of the few times he doesn’t weave them all into a dense, nigh-on impenetrable collage), and each one is retraceable throughout the rest of his filmography.
For example, just as The Thin Red Line’s Captain Starros chooses loyalty to his men over loyalty to his superiors, so Holly chooses loyalty to her murderous boyfriend over loyalty to her father in Badlands (1973). Just as Private Bell pines for (and is eventually betrayed by) his wife Marty, so John Smith and Pocahontas spend much of The New World (2005) trying to make their impossible colonial/native relationship work. And just as Private Witt seeks spiritualism and truth amidst the brutality of war, so Malick seeks to rationalise his own upbringing by contrasting it with the creation of the universe in The Tree of Life.
On that latter point, it’s important to note that Knight of Cups is part of Malick’s newfound freedom in filmmaking, as well as a heightened autobiographical streak. For the first forty-two years of his career, he released five films. Then, at the beginning of this decade, he made four in two years. To the Wonder was the first, and Knight of Cups was supposed to be the third after the as-yet unreleased Weightless, starring Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara. All of these, along with the upcoming Voyage of Time being released later this year, are products of a new production deal that allows Malick to have free reign over the creative process, which has inevitably led to his cinema becoming even more introspective and personal than ever before.
As such, To the Wonder sees Malick’s three central themes condensed into as many protagonists. The character Neil symbolises love; Marina is used to explore loyalty; and Father Quintana searches for truth as he wrestles with a crisis of faith. Each theme overlaps and informs the others, as is Malick’s habit, but until then it was unusual to see these themes, ever-present as they were, solidified in such a concrete fashion.
Knight of Cups takes this further by consolidating all those themes into a single character. As suggested earlier, Rick’s disloyalty to his ex-wife Nancy is part of the catalyst for his present existentialism, and he must grapple with various forms of love in order to find truth in life. Whatever that truth may be is obviously never specified; it could be religion, or it could be truth as drawn from the philosophy of Heidegger or Kierkegaard, both of whom Malick specialised in while studying philosophy at Oxford. Regardless, Knight of Cups seems to be exploring not just the miserly character in front of the camera, but also the enigmatic figure behind it.
Similar links are revealed in Malick’s historical usage of gender, and indeed, it’s usually the women who are disloyal in his films; Holly in Badlands, Abby in Days of Heaven (1978), Marina in To the Wonder, etc. But it’s never as clear-cut as that would suggest. Holly betrays Kit because he’s a serial killer, and their life together is unsustainable. Abby betrays Bill because he’s married her off to a rich landowner for his own gains. And Marina betrays Neil because he’s an unconscionable, soulless rock. In all of those films, however, women are integral factors in the narratives, and the female’s betrayal is the climactic incident. In Knight of Cups, the formula is inverted; the male character is not merely a flawed protagonist like the rest of Malick’s leading men, but he’s also the betrayer, and there is much more of a focus on his utility of women to reach his own gains.
Coming back to Malick’s recent autobiographical bent, it’s striking to see him making films about these central themes, as opposed to using them to explore poverty, mass murder, or the founding of America. Knight of Cups could well be an examination of Malick’s own career, as it illustrates the importance of female characters to a filmmaker who can’t make heads nor tails of his work environment; as the legend goes, the editing process of Days of Heaven took over three years, and proved so exhausting that the director fled to Paris and spent the next twenty years in cinematic unemployment.
In that time, none of his projects made it as far as the production phase. This bears further food for thought in Malick’s latest, as aside from The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, all his other films, to various extents, begin with new relationships (indeed, his films often resemble long-term commitments themselves, given their personal nature and typically lengthy gestation periods). In Knight of Cups, however, all six of Rick’s relationships are non-starters, arguably symbolising Malick-esque stories that never manage to get going, just like the countless scripts he tried to bring to fruition during his time in exile.
This, though, reflects part of the problem. As much as Knight of Cups will undoubtedly provide pleasure for anyone wanting to dig further into its many complexities, none of it ever manages to get off the ground, and some of it can be painfully dull. Starting with The Tree of Life (which received mixed reviews at Cannes until its surprise Palme d’Or win), Malick has largely deprioritised narrative, choosing instead to drive those central themes of loyalty, love, and truth (along with Christianity, Gnosticism, Kierkegaard, and whatever else takes his fancy) into impressionistic cinematic experiences. Common criticisms of the director’s latest works are that they are pompous, pretentious movies presented in difficult ways in order to create the illusion of having meaning; the counterargument, equally valid, positions them as strikingly original artworks that are pushing the boundaries of storytelling.
But where creative control is almost always the dream for fans and filmmakers alike, it’s actually made Malick less interesting, purely because his difficult reference points, in philosophy and his own life, are occupying his focus more than any form of entertainment value. Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all abstract and intellectual films in their own right, but they’re also enjoyable to viewers who aren’t as steeped in Heidegger’s theory of Being as Malick is. The transition came with The Tree of Life, which will always be an occasionally brilliant but largely obnoxious piece of work, but To the Wonder, the first product of Malick’s generous production arrangement, is a joyless, deliberately obtuse, and downright irritating cinematic misstep. One of the few delights of Knight of Cups is that it isn’t To the Wonder.
Like To the Wonder, however, Knight of Cups depicts a world where people skulk silently through Hollywood while trying their absolute hardest to look mysterious. When they’re not doing that, they’re frolicking about, behaving strangely, and acting like children. It’s a deeply infuriating trend that looks like Tarkovsky on crack, and it’s a thing that Malick has been doing ever since The New World. In that film, however, Pocahontas’ childlike prancing is used to successfully convey senses of innocence and ecstasy. The difference here is that Knight of Cups is too consistently maudlin to make anything feel positive, which is largely thanks to Hanan Townshend’s dreary and motionless score, as well as Christian Bale’s aggravatingly placid face. Despite experiencing the hedonistic highlife of uptown Los Angeles and witnessing more naked women than clothed ones, Bale’s expression remains unchanged throughout the movie’s 118 plodding minutes.
Not even Emmanuel Lubezki can save the day. Unless his best results from the shoot ended up on the digital cutting room floor, Knight of Cups marks one of his weakest performances to date. Perhaps this is due to the way the film is edited, but very little of Lubezki’s camerawork is legitimately rousing here, at least not on the level of his work with Aflonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, or even on The Tree of Life, for that matter. Besides some striking shots of dogs swimming underwater, the action is so rammed with visual metaphors, as well as attempts at capturing stunning beauty, that it eventually becomes overwhelming to the point where it starts to feel meaningless and drab. What’s more disheartening is that the best shots are indistinguishable in memory from the best ones in To the Wonder.
The film has been compared to, among others, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015), Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (2014), and David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), as well as the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Frederico Fellini, and Wong Kar-wai. But the closest relation to Knight of Cups is Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs (2013), which is another film from a gifted director gradually losing interest in what people think of his output. In short, Stray Dogs amplifies Tsai’s ‘slow cinema’ aesthetic by lengthening the takes, slowing the pace, and making the action more quotidian than ever before. The final shot lasts twelve minutes, and involves little more than the central couple staring at nothing in particular. Quite simply, it plays like self-parody. Similarly, Malick’s aforementioned creative freedom appears to be inspiring him to make films either purely for his gradually diminishing fan club, or, more likely, for himself. Knight of Cups is Malick-by-numbers, art-house porn for die-hard fans of obnoxiously unconventional storytelling.