Early on in Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups, Rick — a self-indulgent screenwriter with a failed marriage behind him who soothes his existential ails with a parade of random models, actresses, and high-fiving Hollywood buddies — is shaken from sleep by a massive earthquake. It’s not exactly subtle; as played by Christian Bale, Rick is a man who’s lost his moral compass and feels his life shifting (literally) beneath his feet. It’s the kind of obvious visual metaphor that filmmakers often seem compelled to throw in when making movies about Los Angeles, with everyone from Robert Altman to Wes Craven relying on the good ol’ earthquake at various points in their careers.
But Terrence Malick's output as a filmmaker has never been described as “obvious”, and right from the beginning there’s a strange tension between the satire of soulless, Hollywood decadence the film seems to be attempting and the director’s own impressionistic tendencies. Filled with flashes of visual beauty and a fistful of interesting ideas, Knight of Cups is — like much of Malick’s most recent work — something that asks to be experienced rather than understood, but by pushing his experimental inclinations further than ever before, he’s ended up with something that’s strangely bereft of poetry or emotional resonance, resulting in a movie that may be off-putting to all but the most ardent Malick die-hards.
The film loosely follows Rick's quest to find meaning in his life, and if the word "quest" sounds a little overly mythical, that's probably due to the film’s symbolic title and layered use of voice-over and quotations. In the tarot, the titular Knight of Cups is an adventurer predominantly guided by his emotional instincts, which fits Bale’s character conceptually if not literally. He’s a man that stumbles through life without purpose, dead-eyed and slack-jawed in most of the film's sequences, brought to attention only by the come-hither stares of the women he comes across or the violent outbursts of his brother (Wes Bentley).
That use of the tarot as a framing device continues throughout the film, with each of the movie’s distinct episodes named not-so-subtly after another card in the deck. A section titled "The Moon" sees Rick bumping into a mysterious young muse played by Imogen Poots, who plays as a Malickian manic pixie dream girl; in "The Hermit" he visits a swinging party at the mansion of a star played by Antonio Banderas; "Death" has him flashing back to a relationship he had with a married woman (Natalie Portman), that was cut short when she discovered she was pregnant.
There’s no real linear narrative sense to it, but that’s not what you expect when you sit down to watch a new Malick film for the first time. As always, he relies on lush visuals to create a sort of emotional palette to explore, and working with frequent collaborator (and now three-time Oscar winner) Emmanuel Lubezki, he once again produces some stunning imagery, whether it’s Rick staggering through a gorgeous desert landscape, or he and Portman’s character dancing with the rising ocean tide in happier times. But rather than mesmerizing the viewer into a hypnotic trance of pure cinema, Cups often feels like it’s pushing the extremes of experimental filmmaking (with movie stars) without purpose or effect. Malick has set out to melt the artifice of narrative away, but on the contrary, the lack of a real thread or any sense of continuity makes the viewer hyper-aware of its construction, turning the film into a frequently plodding, tiring experience.
One could argue that this is somewhat Malick’s point. The elliptical nature of the storytelling puts the viewer in the same position as Rick, constantly scanning each new chapter and character introduction for some hint of greater meaning or purpose. But that would suggest that Malick set out to make a film intentionally absent of meaning, and — quite to the contrary — Knight of Cups is a clearly personal film. Much like his last two movies, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is spattered with details lifted straight from the notoriously private director's known biography. During the 20 years between 1978’s Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Malick worked steadily behind the scenes as a Hollywood ghostwriter, much like Rick. And like Malick, Rick has two brothers, one of whom committed suicide, and is constantly pressed by a hard-driving father (Brian Dennehy). It’s nearly impossible to watch the episode about Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett channeling pure, raw vulnerability) and not feel that Malick is using the medium to explore his own feelings of regret and loss. When it all comes together, it’s staggering, as good as any of his previous work.
An abstract object of art, to be discussed but never felt
If only those moments of cohesion were more consistent. Despite the fleeting moments of beauty, Knight of Cups simply doesn’t hold together as a cohesive work. It’s brimming with philosophy, ideas, and voice, unmistakably Malick from the opening frames — but perhaps it’s too much so. It's a film focused so deeply on pushing the limitations of the form that it neglects to make its satirical punches land, a film so intent on plumbing the filmmaker’s own personal experience that it doesn’t allow viewers to connect. It’s an abstract object of art, best looked at from afar and discussed in hushed tones of quiet reverence — but oddly, never to be felt.
Knight of Cups will arrive in limited theaters this Friday, March 4th.