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.

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