Drinking the Malick Kool-Aid

Knight of Cups
(USA, 118 min.)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley
Rick (Christian Bale) and Nancy (Cate Blanchett) in Knight of Cups, an Entertainment One release.

The press notes for Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups indicate that the director shot the film without a conventional screenplay and I hate to say it, but it shows. While Knight of Cups doesn’t offer the same rambling shots of people twirling in the wheat fields à la To the Wonder, the film essentially plays like a feature-length collage of B-roll footage. Actors improvise in eye-catching locations and Malick’s team draws out something miraculous in the editing room. There is still a lot of twirling, though, and ample shots of actors frolicking, running, and wandering as the impressive cast puts ample trust in Malick’s vision and explores the creative process. There’s an aimlessness to this act of Malickian meandering though, since Knight of Cups doesn’t have a fully formed idea behind it, like an essay that ‘explores’ rather than ‘argues,’ so the filmmaker’s cinematic philosophy and visual poetry don’t inspire the same sense of wonder one sees in his stronger efforts The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line. One can call Knight of Cups total BS, an odyssey into the soul, or an exercise in vulgar auteurism, and the film is open enough to allow all three flavours. Take your pick.

Knight of Cups follows the same elliptical style of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and the cinematography by Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki once again experiments with perspectives and points of view, so the film brings a sense of déjà vu even as it improves upon the misfire of To the Wonder. Every frame of Knight of Cups looks gorgeous and Malick’s team does a phenomenal feat of scouting locations that evoke the vapidity of celebrity while intoxicating the audience with the power of appearances. Admittedly, Knight of Cups also offers many instances of visual pleasure for its own sake, like some great scenes of swimming pooches (Malick is presumably a fan of Underwater Dogs) and a stupid pelican that waddles on a dock and gets about as much screentime as Cate Blanchett does. The visuals are something of a joke now in Malickland, but perhaps some pointless optical impressions are inevitable when a team shoots footage on the fly. The power of the images makes Knight of Cups consistently engaging, though, and sifting through the myriad of elusive metaphors is an ambitious endeavour.

The object of the inquisitive gaze in Knight of Cups is Rick (Christian Bale, whose brooding persona suits the part remarkably well), a writer who seeks answers and fulfilment in his seemingly aimless life. He searches for love in LA and New York in a series of episodes with various women, including his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett, woefully under-used here), lover (Natalie Portman, good in a bigger role), and muse (Freida Pinto, aided greatly by the editors). The sequences mark Rick’s gradual maturity with women, moving from hedonistic bacchanals to profound experiences of love and loss, which culminate in a musing on the emptiness of celebrity. The strongest chapter is Blanchett’s early appearance in which she wears the grief of a wounded woman with restlessness and hunger. Malick films often task actors with carrying a project through silent expressions and Blanchett excels in this department far more than some of the other actresses in the film do, so it’s pity that Knight of Cups doesn’t explore her character in more detail.

The film begins with scenes of roaring parties that evoke Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, but Malick moves fleetingly through Rick’s days of drunken womanising. Nightclubs and hotel rooms are his playground, and his life is as empty as the studio lots he frequents. Naked girls and strippers jump and twirl. An earthquake shakes him and wakes him from his stupor. He sees a reader, who draws the titular Knight of Cups card, the most feminine of the knights, and he reflects upon past loves while searching for new ones.

Each chapter draws from a deck of tarot cards and signals itself with title cards like “The Moon” and “The High Priestess,” but like a fortune prophesied by a reader, the film needs all the cards on the table for the story to come together. Even fans of Malick’s generally plotless films will find that Knight of Cups is one of his more demanding experiences. Shifts in tone and style mark Rick’s progression, while sporadic narration from Ben Kingsley evokes the spiritual power the cards yield. Bale voices Rick’s thoughts and yearnings through the film’s frequent voiceover, which fades in and out in with the few scenes of drama that Malick lets play out in full.

The snippets of dialogue, however, frequently betray Malick’s “let’s make this movie up as we go along” approach. Nothing in the film really jives and, say, scenes with Blanchett’s Nancy hint at greatness with their fleeting glances at Rick’s failed marriage as they show the selfless woman whom he mistreated while filling his seemingly bottomless cup of lust. Similarly, a flyby appearance by Antonio Banderas hints at the ambitions behind the not-so-fully-formed idea of Knight of Cups as he arises at a party—which literally seems as if Malick’s team threw a big party and invited a bunch of celebrities so they could film them mingling, drinking, and enjoying the high life—and then randomly disappears. Ditto Cherry Jones, Jason Clarke, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, all of whom make token appearances. Malick has a reputation for excising stars from his movies, but Knight of Cups has so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by people like Ryan O’Neal, Fabio, and Maps to the Stars scribe Bruce Wagner that the film ultimately becomes a Where’s Waldo puzzle of celebrities in which meaning is the man with the red and white stripes. Talents like Dane DeHaan, Joel Kinnaman, Nick Offerman, and Clifton Collins, Jr. make their mark in the credits, but one wouldn’t even know they’re in the film from watching it.

The actors are mostly vehicles for Malickian meditation and their lines are basically white noise within an elaborate sound mix in which voiceover and nomadic music are the key players. The voiceover, similarly, suggests a heavy effort in post-production, as if Malick and company let the images evoke sensations and feelings onto which they projected philosophical ramblings. For all the apparent pointlessness of Knight of Cups, though, the editing team of A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Geoffrey Richman, and Mark Yoshikawa performs a laudable salvage job with the random assortment of footage that Malick presents. They transform a plethora of wasted opportunities into something meditative and soul-searching. As with Rick’s own journey, Knight of Cups is a quest for meaning. Going along with it requires one to drink the Malick Kool-Aid, but it’s worth a few sips.

Knight of Cups is currently playing in Toronto at the Varsity. It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on March 25.