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Knight of Cups
d. Terrence Malick (2015)

The voiceover that runs through Terrence Malick’s latest is probably a deal-breaker for most viewers. Having said that, if you don’t like voiceovers, you probably don’t like Malick anyway. Here are the first few lines from Knight of Cups, spoken by Brian Dennehy, father of the Christian Bale’s central character, in a desert-dry drawl:

Remember the story
I used to tell you when you were a boy . . .
about a young prince.
A knight,
sent by his father, the King of the East,
west into Egypt . . .
to find a pearl.
A pearl from the depths of the sea.
But when the prince arrived,
the people poured him a cup
that took away his memory.
He forgot he was the son of a the king.
Forgot about the pearl . . .
and fell into a deep sleep.

Bale’s Rick is a Hollywood writer in hedonistic freefall (one of the first glimpses we get of Bale has him framed horizontal as colourful mayhem ensues around his prone, wasted body). He’s led a vacuous existence and seems to be trying to rouse himself from a deathly stupor. He soon begins ruminating on a wasted life; he’s trying to make peace with or sense of a disastrous self and is looking to, as the last word spoken in the film will attest, “begin.” But first he will need to reckon with a catalogue of failed encounters or familial estrangements.

Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups takes its time; the soundtrack, and the gentle, shellshocked pace lends it the vibe of a glacial opera; set-pieces, such as they are, are often submerged in music, fragments intercut as part of a flickering montage, as though memories as sand running through fingers. Malick often silences the actual seen incidents in such segments of the film – arguments between his errant brother (Wes Bentley) and their father (Brian Dennehy), or scenes of debauchery — like a politely horrified anthropologist refusing to fully engage in that moment’s reality (in a manner that always reminds me of Herzog — a kind of disbelieving marvelling at that strange species, human beings), focussing on balletic dancers suspended from a Vegas club ceiling or reclining revellers hidden behind masks as a voiceover and / or music monopolizes.

The camera is usually too fascinated by absolutely everything to simply offer up a blank stare at an image — Malick is too in awe of the natural world to skip past any of it, or treat it as mere backdrop — but when it does, it lingers, eager to enthuse you in an evolving moment, provocatively so. Emmanuel Lubezki and Jack Fisk’s contribution to the film is enormous and typically impressive (if you want a masterful exhibition of how to capture wrenching, searingly beautiful skies, waning sunlight, horizons at dawn and sunset, buildings bathed in ‘magic hour’ effulgence, look no further). The intricate choreography necessary to film as Malick does often creates a sense of a importunate spirit-entity spinning towards actors or objects before drifting shyly away, a paradoxical approach that’s both highly stylized and impressionistic, like a delirious, restless painter obsessively throwing dabs of paint here and there to create a replete sense of an environment without ever surely fastening onto one aspect of a scene. The usual sloping, drifting camera sweeps and swoops are ghostly and dreamlike and unmoored, glancing elliptically across and around mystifying lives.

Malick doesn’t hint at anything: he demands your immersion in hypnotic, sensual, post-intellect rhaspodies. This is the kind of uncompromising, hypnagogic cinema that is incredibly easy to mock; here’s a guy, a Hollywood writer, moving from one woman to the next as though haplessly stumbling upon beauties were something he disinterestedly squeezes in when not throwing end-of-days parties or feeling tortured. Bale spends most scenes looking bereft; when he isn’t chasing naked hotties through sleek, minimalist rooms emptied of all else but billowing white sheets and beds, he’s gazing into the middle-distance, distracted by the big questions, as all Malick protagonists tend to be. They’re always wrestling with questions of asceticism vs indulgence and self-gratification, or purity and “connection” over corroding chaos. Bale is perhaps the epitome of all preceding Malick characters; he’s a kind of extension of Sean Penn’s character in Tree of Life (Penn, who loathed that film and his part in it, tended to look constipated, which gave plenty of grist to the anti-Malick mill), mournfully wandering, using the grandeur of a surrounding landscape to further crush his dwindling sense of significance. He spends a lot of time looking miserable, in other words, whilst driving an open top car through Sunset Boulevard and into the hills at sunset.

My take on that is simple: I’m glad he’s still asking those same questions. It’s just too glib to write this kind of endeavour off as “ridiculous.” Malick means this stuff; you can’t watch Knight of Cups, or any of his recent efforts in particular, without giving yourself over to it completely. It won’t work otherwise. You’ll get hung up on the spoof-ready jump cuts between Bale and Imogen Poots, or Bale and Cate Blanchett, or Bale and Natalie Portman, that feel, in isolation, like out-takes from a Calvin Klein promo. Malick is not demanding sympathy for an ostensibly privileged character; he’s using this milieu to further emphasise a constantly revisited theme: our egos obscure what life is meant to be about and render everything not only meaningless but deceptive and endlessly painful. You either buy into Malick’s worldview or you don’t: if not, there’s no point watching, as every moment is imbued with an indefatigable sense of loss, wonder and derailed possibility, and each film is an instinctive, deeply-felt entirety. He’s casting a net across the landscape, trawling his version of the world, then gently putting what he’s found back (fish/planes gliding through water / sky — big motif. There’s a kind of lugubrious sub-aqeous feel to the whole film). Malick makes no distinction between people and highlights the absurdity of such distinctions; everyone’s isolated and unreconciled from not only each other but, in this case, “the pearl,” something those seeking it recognise their lack of. People in Malick films are often never further than when closest, touching, failing to breach divisions, eager to shed confinement but ultimately incapable of doing so, locked into something nowhere near anything real, imprisoned.

Knight of Cups is yet another rolling, discursive hymn to self-exacerbated damnation, and an antidote to selfish exile, and as such it’s a must-see for Malick fans. It makes no concessions to criticisms of the likes of To the Wonder or Tree of Life and, if anything, hews closer still to a defiantly loose, elegiac, meandering philosophy. I’m more than happy to celebrate that fact, whilst completely understanding the reluctance of many to spend time with these films. They’re not for everyone: that’s partly why they’re indispensable.

By | 2016-06-29T15:25:36+00:00 June 29th, 2016|Categories: Film Reviews, Terrence Malick|21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Dennis Lang June 29, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    The best description yet of what it is to experience a Malick film!!

    “The intricate choreography necessary to film as Malick does often creates a sense of a importunate spirit-entity spinning towards actors or objects before drifting shyly away, a paradoxical approach that’s both highly stylized and impressionistic, like a delirious, restless painter obsessively throwing dabs of paint here and there to create a replete sense of an environment without ever surely fastening onto one aspect of a scene. The usual sloping, drifting camera sweeps and swoops are ghostly and dreamlike and unmoored, glancing elliptically across and around mystifying lives.”

  2. Ian Curtin (@IanCurtin1) June 30, 2016 at 4:29 am

    I did something previously unimaginable for me and chose to skip To The Wonder, and early signs were that this might go the same way. But I must say your very bracing and informed thoughts have got me back on track Lee. You’re right: Malick haters gonna hate, and as a Malick lover I shouldn’t be so swayed.

  3. Lee Monks June 30, 2016 at 5:14 am

    Thanks Dennis. Malick is divisive but, for those of us so inclined, a unique and vital artist.

    Ian: get right back amongst it! Plenty to enjoy in both films for the Malick fan. Let us know what you think…

  4. Greg July 2, 2016 at 12:34 am

    Thank you Lee for explaining what Malick is attempting in his last three movies. Now I completely understand why Christian and Cate signed up for the latest film!

    My favourite part of your review is this:

    “Our egos obscure what life is meant to be about and render everything not only meaningless but deceptive and endlessly painful.”

  5. Lee Monks July 4, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Greg – I may well be wrong! But there’s more to these films than the broad dismissals of them – occasionally by the actual stars of the film! – suggest.

  6. Greg July 4, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    Thanks Lee for your modesty!

    Also, Roger Ebert in his last ever review (for “To The Wonder”) took the same tact as you did in explaining why Malick’s films are worth watching.

    I miss Roger….

  7. Lee Monks July 5, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    What an excellent way to bow out!

  8. Dennis Lang July 5, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Didn’t realize his last review was “To the Wonder”. From Roger’s review:

    “There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

  9. Greg July 5, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Thank you Dennis for sharing Ebert’s analysis.

    The key part for me is: “rather evoke than supply”

  10. Lee Monks July 6, 2016 at 6:44 am

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of that wonderful review, Greg, and I think Dennis grabs the key paragraph there. Obviously, I agree with Mr Ebert!

  11. Dennis Lang August 19, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Lee, I just saw “Knight of Cups” and was so disappointed after being mesmerized by “Tree of Life” and Malick’s ethereal evocative cinema couldn’t resist venting.

    Your lyrical description foregoing is a million times more powerful then this pointless–or I should say he could have cut 90 minutes and made the same statement of existential angst–self-indulgent exercise.

    I think the most disappointing work by a film-maker i hold in the highest admiration, I’ve ever seen. Sad.

  12. Sean H August 19, 2016 at 10:24 pm

    I need to see it again before I can claim it’s a true masterpiece but Knight of Cups is easily the best film I’ve seen in 2016 and it’ll be hard to displace it. A lot of people want to be spoonfed plot and traditional character development but there’s a clear arc here for Bale’s tormented protagonist, not to mention finely drawn supporting work. It’s a heartbreaking work that is truly moving if you go at it at its own level. Tree of Life is wonderful as well, but I’d be curious to hear why you thought it was “self-indulgent,” Dennis, as this has been a topic on another forum about “Why is self-indulgent writing bad?”
    Malick is not a handsome young screenwriter nor a native Los Angeleno. Knight of Cups is an uber-contemporary look at commodification and the allure of surface beauty (and their diminishing returns), and in so many ways it’s a filmmaker stretching his horizons (ie: most of Malick’s films are historical, this one is present day). Great art is almost always “pointless.” Point-ful art is didactic. Here, Malick’s themes are always in service of his art, never grandstanding or lesson-teaching.

  13. Dennis Lang August 19, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks much Sean H. I get all you say about Malick’s approach and his subject matter here. Lack of conventionality has nothing to do with my distaste for this movie. “Tree of Life” was not self-indulgent. I considered it a masterpiece of the form Malick is cultivating, haunting and resonant, as evanescent as memory.

    I think “Knight of Cups” was preposterously repetitive that went nowhere that couldn’t have been achieved in the same form of stunning visual and elusive audio at what might have been a memorable 45 minutes.

    But that’s just me. It’s greatest moment and relief was when it mercifully ended. A monstrous disappointment for me.

  14. Dennis Lang August 19, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    PS: Sean H–Believe me I was fully expecting to see all in this film just as you saw it. Appreciate your comment!

  15. Greg August 20, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Thank you Sean for sharing what Malick was doing here, and what great film art is all about! I especially liked these parts:

    “It’s a heartbreaking work that is truly moving if you go at it at its own level.”

    “Great art is almost always ‘pointless’. Point-ful art is didactic.”

  16. Dennis Lang August 20, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Well this got lively! Thoughtful commentary Sean H and Greg! I did like the the underwater shots of the dog chasing the tennis ball. Spoke volumes!

  17. Lee Monks August 20, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Dennis: big shame, particularly from a Malick fan. I think he’s a genius. Many shots from the film have stayed with me. Just the way he moves the camera is often enough for me: he’s sifting every cubic centimetre of a moment to speak of it repletely, if that doesn’t sound convoluted. That opening party scene is harrowing and beautiful in equal measure: who else does that?

    Sean H: I haven’t seen anything that I could say meant more this year.

  18. Dennis Lang August 20, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    Really enjoying the conversation. Wish we had more. Sure, I understand Malick’s break with narrative convention requires a commitment by the viewer, giving oneself to the film. This can be extraordinarily rewarding intellectually and emotionally; and like the silently roving camera advancing, receding, circling, the viewer becomes like a cat moving stealthily through this world, a witness participating in it rather than an objective observer watching it.
    A striking and original achievement!
    However, this one played for me like one note over and over. “Let’s go shoot some film and see what we come with. Empty alongside “The Tree of Life” and to a slightly lesser degree “To the Wonder”.
    But good take guys! Enjoyed it.

  19. Lee Monks August 21, 2016 at 3:34 am

    He’s the pantheist Altman – let’s hope his country and western pic rivals Nashville…

  20. David August 21, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    I saw the film last month and I share the view of those who found it to be excellent. Dennis, your criticism that it could have been much shorter and that it was repetitive surprises me. The film presents a series of different relationships that Rick has and they each tell a very different part of his story and how he has become stuck the way he is. Each of the women stands out to me as quite distinct and quite original, never merely a repetition of any previous ones. His complicated relationship with his father and brother also takes time to become fully revealed, as we learn more about the other brother and his death.

    Sean referenced the discussion elsewhere of self-indulgence. In fact, there I used the example of critics of Malick liking to call his work self-indulgent. People tend to call something self-indulgent if it is original and they don’t like it. My view is that yes, he is self-indulgent, but that’s not a criticism. It merely means he is an original artist following his artistic instincts. I very much like what his doing that achieved here.

  21. Greg August 22, 2016 at 12:18 am

    Thanks David for explaining Malick’s narrative aims and for using this great film as another example that falls under your interpretation of effective self-indulgence!

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