Knight of Cups movie full length review - Furthering the divide.
If To the Wonder was Terrence Malick's stab at a true tonal poem in visual form, Knight of Cups is what would happen if Malick gobbled a fistful of mescaline and went on walkabout in the Hollywood Hills.
There is a freneticism to his latest film which feels at odds with Malick's usually languid tendencies; an urgency that is unexplored territory for the notoriously pensive director.
Ever since his 2011 opus The Tree of Life, Malick's films have taken on a bit of an autobiographical bent. I have long postulated that Malick's twenty-year hiatus between his second and third films was something of a research mission, where he drew material for future films from his own personal experiences, and that the intervening years allowed him to contemplate the philosophical ramifications of it all. If The Tree of Life was an ode to Malick's bygone childhood and To the Wonder an elegy to his tumultuous first marriage, Knight of Cups feels like a meditation on the disillusionment and discontent he must have felt on the Hollywood scene.
Following the lead of Hunter McCracken and Ben Affleck, the Malick surrogate in Knight of Cups is Christian Bale. His character, Rick, is an in-demand screenwriter, but we never actually see him work. Instead, Rick acts as more of a silent voyeur to the glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous. He attends parties that devolve into bacchanals (one passed-out guy in a satyr costume really brings that imagery home), he canoodles with bombshells in open-topped convertibles, he explores vast marble manses that overlook the bum-packed streets of L.A. He's clearly doing well, but Rick seemingly exists in a state of an existential crisis.
The film's title speaks to a tarot theme, and indeed if Knight of Cups could be said to follow any sort of structure, it is through a fortune reading of Rick's life (which are revealed in title cards that split the film into chapters). Rick's headlong dive into the sensual overload Hollywood provides is an attempt at escaping something that pains him, and the source of much of that agony is translated in short bursts of filial backstory throughout the film. His younger brother (Wes Bentley) is living hand-to-mouth in increasingly desperate circumstances, and when they get together we learn of a third brother who may or may not have committed suicide. This really happened to Malick, and it was a theme explored in The Tree of Life (where it is implied Jack's brother died in Vietnam). And as in his 2011 opus, there are seeds of a parental theme. For me, one of the more enduring images of Knight of Cups is Dennehy's stout-shouldered presence as Rick's father. If we graft our memories of Brad Pitt's paternal performance in The Tree of Life to Dennehy's work, it creates a very fascinating arc of an old man bitter at how he treated his son growing up, and of a son bitter at becoming his father.
It's not just his blood relatives that gnaw at Rick, either. His estranged wife (Cate Blanchett) shows up, and while we don't really get much insight into what has brought ruin to their relationship, as much of their conflict is drowned out by thundering ambient score, all we have to do is transpose what we know of the crumbling marriage in To the Wonder here. I don't want to say that Knight of Cups needs the previous two films to truly understand it, because I do believe that a film should be able to stand alone and be understood, but it nevertheless does benefit from that extra shading. The consistency among the three films is bolstered by Emmanuel Lubezki, who was the cinematographer for this loose trilogy.
When it comes to the look of Knight of Cups, Lubezki scarcely lets the camera stay still, scanning through Day-Glo nightclubs and desolate L.A. scrublands with equal majesty. There's something almost Koyaanisqatsi-esque to this film, and honestly, I feel that Knight of Cups actually succeeds where I feel To the Wonder fell short: you could dice away all of the dialogue and I could still follow it and understand its message. Malick's journey into the abstract pays off here in a better way, as it frees him to indulge in some extremely trippy interludes (including a black-and-white slice of performance art that really feels like it was guest-directed by David Lynch).
And while Malick's notorious under-use of his A-list casts persists here (by the time Natalie Portman, the last in a long line of gamine gals that flit in and out of Rick's life, shows up, they've all blurred together), the actors haven't been the true focus of his films in decades, if ever. That said, several faces I never thought I'd see in a Malick film bob and weave through the film with surprising regularity. Hey, Joe Lo Truglio! Whoa, is that Nick Kroll? Who the hell thought Fabio would ever appear in something like this?
Knight of Cups boasts some striking imagery, but as he continues to carve a path through the realm of the abstract, stripping away plot and characterization in favor of mood, his fandom will be increasingly divided like the Red Sea. Some will shy away from his newfound tendencies as being desperate self-parody; others will applaud him for his boldness. I can't say for certain on which side I fall, but that's what makes it so exciting.