It's no secret that I am huge fan of auteur director Terrence Malick. The more obtuse his films, the better I like them (see past reviews here). I know his style of filmmaking drives some to apoplexy, but I respond to it...it speaks to me. I see and feel the world in a similar way so I understand the language Malick uses.
And I am very happy that he has been hard at work in recent years, making a spate of films to keep fans like me satisfied for a little while. After the utterly astounding "Tree of Life" (previously here) and "To The Wonder" (here), we have the next entry, "Knight of Cups" starring Christian Bale and an extraordinary supporting cast with some amazing cameos (you might want to sit down for this list): Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Freida Pinto, Cherry Jones, Nick Offerman, Thomas Lennon, Ryan O'Neal, and Joe Manganiello, among many more.
It is fitting that the story of "Knight of Cups" is told through the Tarot--there are eight sections to this film, seven of them being named after a Major Arcana card from the Tarot deck--since the Tarot is a visual medium that requires participation, meditation, and interpretation just like a Malick film. Film is a visual medium and Malick uses it to his full advantage, giving us information and ideas visually, without much dialogue. When people speak in his films, or more commonly when we hear their whispered thoughts and inner monologue, it is as if someone has called your name while you are asleep. Dreams can only convey a narrative or an idea to us in one way: it shows us pictures. A dream can’t—and indeed does not need to—tell us what it wants us to know, it shows us. That is the language of signifiers. That is the primordial, pre-conscious language of our psyches, our souls. That is our first, original language before words. So it is with film, so it with dreams, and so it is with the Tarot.
A Malick film is impressionistic, not relying on spoken narrative or exposition, like so many films. For a visual medium, it is a curiosity that more directors don't operate this way. But then telling a story visually means that your audience must be in possession of interpretive powers. And that is something one cannot count on in today's world. It's a supremely powerful way to tell a story since it bypasses intellect and taps directly into the subconscious, the imaginative part of ourselves where dreams are produced, and where the symbols of the Tarot live (like Jung's archetypes...the Major Arcana are a set of powerful archetypes.) One must simply watch a Malick film--we must witness--to understand the story, and like so much of life, the edges are left frayed, and pieces are left unclear or untold. If you walk down the street and overhear a snippet of conversation from the people walking in front of you, you may hear an amazing story, but that story had a beginning you did not hear, and is presumably on-going. Your own story has a beginning of which you are most likely only hazily aware, and you certainly do not know the end since you are alive, reading this review. For a story, whether written or filmed or spoken, to be like real life, it must be continually moving, unclear at the edges, and a bit messy.
Here is what can be gleaned from the visual journey of our subjects in "Knight of Cups": Rick (Christian Bale) works in the film industry in Los Angeles but is a man who is supremely disconnected from himself and his life...as we see, he is disconnected from any sense of life, much less his own. He is, in archetypal terms, the Seeker. He is someone on a quest, a journey. In fact, the film starts with a a quote based on the "Hymn of the Pearl" from the New Testament apocryphal "Acts of Thomas":
"Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep..."
His life is empty, and he wonders how he spent the last 30 years of his life ruining it for himself. And of course the worst place to live a life of spiritual emptiness is Los Angeles, land of superficiality and illusion. He wanders through his life and through L.A. encountering people, situations, and lovers, but none of it seems to wake him. None of it serves to rouse him and remind him of who he truly is and what he's doing here. We see a string of women come and go in his life, girlfriends, one night stands, and those who could perhaps have been true loves, but while the women all dance and spin around him (literally), talking to him about themselves and life, he mutely watches. He can't participate for them or himself.
The emptiness is visually and thematically echoed in his surroundings. I don't think I have ever seen Los Angeles on film look so empty. Rick walks by tall buildings in downtown L.A. but courtyards are devoid of people. He wanders the back lot of a film studio, again, completely alone. We may get a glimpse of a single actress dressed as Marie-Antoinette or there may be some homeless scattered around, but it all still reads as empty.
There are also a lot of very "Los Angeles-style" images and events: Rick is wakened by a morning earthquake; we see freeway overpasses from below mixed with palm trees; we see Venice Beach; we see Chris Burden's Urban Light sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; we see a fashion shoot at the iconic Stahl House. But beyond this, we see a constant parade of pools (doesn't everyone in L.A. live in a house with a pool?) and seaside moments where people are pushed in, jump in, swim, float, play, contemplate. The presence of water as a signifier can be quite powerful. In Jungian philosophy, water is the subconscious. In the Tarot, water is associated with the suit of Cups and embodies primal emotion and intuition. The characters here are always trying to immerse themselves in this primalness, to connect to something authentic.
For a film without much dialogue and a run time of only 118 minutes, Malick manages to pack a lot of story into a small space. We also see Rick's brother Barry and discover there was a third brother who committed suicide, and we see their father played by a frighteningly frail Brian Dennehy who, much like his son Rick, can't seem to reconcile himself to his own failings in life. Rick reminds me of Neil, Ben Affleck's character in "To The Wonder" who spent the film going from disastrous relationship to disastrous relationship. Some critics have accused Malick of a dearth of ideas, saying that he has made the same movie three times in a row. But I suspect what he has done is cleverly made a trilogy of a theme and variations of being lost to oneself, being disconnected from oneself and others, suffering from a sort of ennui. And isn't that really the disease of our time? The current consumerism and social media and obsession with celebrity culture and reality television has forced so many to just exist without any shred of authenticity.
Malick and his cinematographer, THREE-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (who also lensed "The Tree of Life" and "To The Wonder") continue to capture breathtakingly beautiful shots using only natural light (a miraculous feat)--most of the film was shot with a stedicam but some sections were shot with a simple Go Pro. This allows Malick to work how he likes: to arrive at a location without a script, and ask his actors to simply inhabit the space, to do whatever they feel, to live in it and with each other so Lubezki can float, zoom, and hover around and in between the actors and the action. This technique often achieves a meditative quality; there are a few moments that are necessary for the actors and the story--and Malick--to propel the story such as the moment Natalie Portman breaks down in tears while telling Rick some bad news, but generally, and in keeping with the spirit of visual story telling, we see people simply being in locations with each other as a way to mirror internal emotional and mental states. Impressionistic. Abstract.
"There's so much love inside us that never gets out."
--Christian Bale as Rick
Recommend? Yes, if you can absorb information in an abstract way, on a holistic level, it is a lovely, penetrating, affirming experience: affirming of the power of art but affirming of life itself. And in fact, if you haven't, try to see "Tree of Life," "To The Wonder," and "Knight of Cups" relatively close together so you can see for yourself if Malick has made a trilogy. There are even some overlapping narrative details like a dead brother who is in both "Tree of Life" and "Knight of Cups", and all three depict men in spiritual crisis seeking some kind of meaning...not seeking the meaning of life since there is none, but seeking to live a life full of meaning. There is a difference.