‘It’s good of you to invite me out here; show me what it’s like to live the… the normal life.’
—Wes Bentley, Knight of Cups
Well, maybe Terrence Malick has finally done it. Since his triumphant return to filmmaking with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, each subsequent effort from the hermetic director has been growing more and more abstract. His latest, Knight of Cups, currently out on Region B German Blu-Ray and streaming, jettisons all pretence of plot and sets course for Godfrey Reggio territory, becoming an Inland Empire, or perhaps The Mirror, for Zen masters. If you were turned off by the symbolic, impressionistic nature of To the Wonder, then turn yourself around right now, for here there be dragons.
The film follows (or, more accurately, orbits) Rick (Christian Bale), a film director, or producer, or possibly screenwriter. Biographical information is difficult to come by in Knight of Cups, as Malick prefers to give us information allusively, rather than through plot or character development. From Wikipedia, I learn that the Knight of Cups tarot card ‘represents change and new excitements, particularly of a romantic nature… The Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.’ This definition sums Rick up pretty well; you could maybe mistake him for Guido Anselmi from 8½, if you overthought things.
There are other ‘characters’ who drift in and out of Rick’s ambit. His brother Barry (Wes Bentley) used to live (still lives?) on the streets, and avoided being harassed by police by posing as a Methodist minister. He has been invited to California by Rick, though where he comes from and goes back to, we do not know. Rick and Barry’s father, Joseph (Brian Dennehy), is/was a cold and distant man, who spends his time strolling through surrealistic environments that perhaps Buñuel once occupied.
Rick has love affairs with quite a few women. Some are nameless models, who wander in his life to whisper fortune-cookie wisdom in his ear, only to wander out again. His romance with Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a medical professional, perhaps ended with Rick’s ego being too big for the both of them. His affair with the married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) hits a roadblock when she becomes pregnant, and does not know if the child is Rick’s or her husband’s. Does their dalliance end? It’s not quite clear.
Honestly, I’m not sure why I’ve taken the time to explain scraps of character and plot to you. Events don’t follow one after another as they do in a typical narrative film; they shift and switch and twirl and twist. People appear and disappear so suddenly that one begins to wonder if some of them truly exist. The experience of watching Knight of Cups is rather akin to reading Finnegan’s Wake: you’re aware that there are characters, and that these characters seem to be doing things, but any two people watching the movie are likely to have very different ideas about if and when something happens.
For example, Rick attends a Hollywood party. He maunders about, watching pretty people pretend to like each other. He winds up listening to Antonio Banderas—who may be playing himself and appears to have wandered over from a Paolo Sorretino film—philosophise about women. This seems quite realistic and, from my point of view, is very likely to be ‘real’.
Now consider the sequence introducing Rick’s father. Joseph, in a dust-filled, disused office building, distractedly rifles through papers as though still at work. He strolls into the next room to wash his hands in a basin of blood. He ambles through a party, ending up on stage at what I swear to God is the Club Silencio, rambling on about something we can’t hear to the sparsely-filled auditorium.
It is difficult to believe that the latter sequence really happened. I suppose it’s all in how you define ‘really’ or ‘happened;’ the images are on the screen, shot and cut the same as all other sequences in Knight of Cups, yet our brains do not identify these images as literal. There is no key or legend to understanding the events we see or what their relation to each other necessarily is. Obviously, they all happen to or around or inside Rick. This is why I used the word ‘orbits’ earlier—in some shots, Rick skulks about like a spectre, unnoticed, possibly not even present. At times, the line between truth and fantasy, between fiction and documentary, vanishes.
This style of filmmaking will be nothing but infuriating to most moviegoers. Some may enter Knight of Cups expecting an emotional love triangle between Bale, Blanchett, and Portman, and are sure to exit frazzled (and early). It was no joke to invoke Godfrey Reggio in my opening paragraph. As Koyaanisqatsi is a tone poem reflecting on the relationship between humans and technology, Knight of Cups is best regarded as a tone poem as well: a meditation on spirituality amidst a world of commercialism and empty physical pleasures. Characters, dialogue, crumbs of story are just ciphers—a launching pad into Malick’s ideas (and possibly a way to secure funding for them). What Knight of Cups is really about is the juxtaposition of incongruent images, the dense layering of sound and music. It is most palpably and defiantly about itself. The atoms of film grammar are obliterated in the plasma of Terrence Malick’s ego. (That’s not a criticism—it’s a selling point.)
At this point in time, you’re either on board with Malick, or have jumped ship long ago. Knight of Cups is unlikely to win over any new converts—but to the choir, it’s another fervent hymn.
Knight of Cups is released in the United States on 4 March. As of this writing, there is no release date scheduled for the UK.