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A critic walks out of a movie theater. It’s late at night. Snow is falling. He is lost in thought. Smiling. A bus roars past, kicking up flurries. There’s a jump cut, and then we see him on the subway, still lost in thought, still smiling. Arvo Pärt’s “Symphony No. 4 Los Angeles,” featured on the film’s soundtrack, plays continuously over shots of the critic’s trip home, intercut with images from the film he just saw, “Knight of Cups,” another philosophical woolgathering exercise by Terrence Malick, a director who was never terrifically enamored of linear narratives with a three-act structure, but has drifted further and further away from them as he’s gotten older, to the point where his films have become pure streams of consciousness, cascades of image and sound—each new feature more radically unmoored from conventional expectations, more grandiose, more innocent-naïve, than the last.
What will I tell readers about this film? the critic muses in voice-over. Maybe something like: The rating at the top of this page is for people who read this review and think, "Yes, this seems like the kind of film I would probably enjoy." If it sounds insufferable to you, it will be insufferable, no doubt, and under no circumstances should you see it.
The lights on the train cut out for a moment, plunging the passengers into darkness. Even having to award stars to a Terrence Malick film seems contrary to the spirit of Terrence Malick.
The brakes screech. Then the lights come on again. The wheels on the rails go clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.
Terrence Malick, says the critic in voice-over, you are infuriatingly original, no wonder you infuriate people. Cut to a point-of-view shot travelling across a rocky stretch of desert, darting left to glance at a cactus. How many films do you have left in you? When you’re gone, you will never be replaced, and we’ll never see the world through your eyes again. Tilt up to the sky as two sheaves of cumulus clouds merge. Cut to a coyote pup walking through a suburban Los Angeles alleyway. Then to the beach, tide rolling in past children building sandcastles. Why is your new movie at 50% on the Tomatometer, Terrence Malick? Do you know what the Tomatometer is? You probably don’t. And it’s just as well, because if you did, you’d never …
The voice-over drops out mid-sentence as we cut to Christian Bale as a writer named Rick, a Malickian seeker who’s adrift in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, the southern California desert, and his own memories. “Knight of Cups” has even less of a coherent story than “The Tree of Life” or “To the Wonder,” fewer complete scenes, fewer complete conversations; it’s all fragmented, pasted together by music, voice-over musings and images that are lovely in that trademark Malickian way that prompts detractors to play Mad Libs: It’s a perfume commercial. It’s a trailer for itself. Plotless. Pointless. Pretentious. Vacuous. At first Rick’s story, or predicament, or whatever you want to call it, seems vague and perfunctory: a clothesline on which to hang Malick’s allusions to John Buynan’s 1678 Christian allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Tarot cards and onscreen chapter titles inspired by Tarot cards (The Hangman, The Moon, The Tower, etc.), and Emmanuel Lubezki’s widescreen images of land, sky, cities, burned-out homes, pristine beaches, palm trees, Hollywood parties, art galleries, strippers, homeless people, men with deformities and infirmities, passing helicopters and jet planes, day laborers with leaf blowers, mothers and fathers and children, wild animals and pets.
What does all this mean, Terrence Malick? asks a second, unfamiliar voice on the interior soundtrack of this film review, perhaps representing the skeptical point-of-view on films like this. Have you disappeared into your own navel? Is the emperor wearing any clothes? Is there a point to any of this or are you just fooling everyone?
But this turns out to be a film that teaches you how to watch it.
Like Sean Penn’s architect in “The Tree of Life,” Rick is haunted by the sudden death of his brother. Rick has a surviving brother named Barry (Wes Bentley), who’s filled with rage and now is apparently living as a squatter in an otherwise vacant floor of a downtown building, and an elderly father (Brian Dennehy) whose office is in an otherwise vacant floor of another downtown building, and a mother (Cherry Jones) who smiles pleasantly but is conflict-averse and seems nearly catatonic as she flees a terrifying, furniture-shattering fight between her husband and sons. There are intimations that the father is responsible, or that Barry holds him responsible, or that he holds himself responsible, for the third son’s death. (There’s a brief, Expressionistic image of the father washing his hands in a sink full of blood, or rinsing blood off his hand in a sink.)
Terrence Malick had a younger brother named Larry who is believed to have committed suicide. This is surely not unrelated to “Knight of Cups.” Rick is an artist numbed by trauma and estranged from the present and his own past, unable to focus, unable to connect, and wondering at times if he can feel anything, if he ever felt anything. This is not an uncommon response to personal catastrophe. But the film is not content to work this out in a prosaic way, in neatly shaped theatrical scenes. Instead it is one of the most committed examples of the principle “form follows function” that you’ll see—so much so that many viewers will find it impenetrable and intolerable.
Strange as this might sound, one of the key moments in “Knight of Cups” is a lyrical interlude cutting together slow-motion shots of dogs diving into swimming pools and trying to grasp a floating tennis ball in their jaws. They never succeed. It’s a comical image, and it’s of a piece with shots and moments strewn throughout “Knight of Cups” that are at least partly about dissatisfaction and frustration; interruption; the inability to concentrate, follow through, finish. The whole movie is a collection of ellipses of different sorts, a series of suspended moments, cordoned-off spectacles, fleeting instants that could be beautiful or emptily pretty, meaning-filled or meaningless. Thick window shades prevent the sun from illuminating an interior. Fog rolls over mountains and roads. The sun flashes into the camera, blinding us. The soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven, Rick's father says.
Many images evoke the Cinema of Stylish Ennui: think of Michelangelo Antonioni's "La Notte" and "L'Eclisse," Michael Mann's "Heat," Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere." We keep seeing images of vacancy, austerity, ruin: empty houses, empty apartments, empty fountains, empty pools. At one point a couple of drug addicts break into Rick’s apartment looking for stuff to sell, and one of them berates Rick for having fewer goods than he does (“…and I’m poor!”), and the scene just sort of stops (maybe they got distracted and left?). Rick hooks up with a succession of women (Imogen Poots' Della, Freida Pinto’s Helen, Cate Blanchett's Nancy, Natalie Portman's Elizabeth) but not only do none of them seem to fully satisfy him, none seem to truly reach him, in the way that we want movie characters, and our own friends, and ourselves to be reached. He feels for them, and with them (Bale's performance, if you can call it that, is a perfect rendition of a man who has no idea what's going on or what his next move will be) and sometimes stares at them with a dopey-pleased grin and runs his fingers along their arms or gazes into their eyes. But he always seems disconnected from them, as if he's just watching them on TV, or dredging them up from memory (sometimes Malick will cut into a dramatically promising moment and give us a flashback to another time, or a shot of something seemingly unrelated).
There are at least two overt settings that call attention to the idea of life as an incredible simulation—a "big city" backlot set at a movie studio where Rick is courted for a job, and the Eiffel Tower Experience at the Paris Las Vegas Casino Hotel—as well as innumerable images of TV sets (one of which shows a high-speed chase), paintings, prints, performance art/dance involving masks, and photo shoots in progress. But none of these (by design, one assumes) feel any less "real" than the "real" settings Rick travels through.
This is one of Malick's most knowingly funny films—probably his funniest since "Badlands"—thanks in large part to the snatches of contextless dialogue heard at lavish parties and in other privileged settings. "Drinking is bad, but feelings are worse," says a party guest. "Cleopatra," says another party guest, "If her nose had been this much shorter, it would have changed the future of the world." "You're like a 1975 housewife who takes steroids and fucks girls during the day," a photographer advises models during a shoot. Antonio Banderas has a wonderful, regrettably brief turn as a party host who randomly dances the pasodoble and announces that he's tired of the flavor of raspberries and now craves "straw-BERRY." Rick's numbed, amused expressions as he takes in scenes of glamorous decadence confirms that we are not meant to accept any such moments as edgy, but to laugh at the very idea of "edge." All these people are living in a fog, hiding from something (from themselves?). Even characters who have just one scene (or in Kevin Corrigan's case, one shot—picking up a check in a diner!) seem as intensely focused as lead characters in other movies. Do they all think they're in a movie of life, and terrified of ending up on the cutting room floor? (Malick is notorious for casting name actors and then deleting their footage because it doesn't suit his mysterious purposes.)
There are images of homeless men, beggars, men with gangrenous legs and deformed fingers (another echo of "To the Wonder"), and the film looks at them with empathy; but nothing any of the characters do for them (not Rick; not one of his girlfriends, who absentmindedly drops flowers next to a man sleeping on a stone bench; not Barry, who rants against the indifference of the privileged; not Nancy, a doctor who ministers to their wounds) seems able to personally improve their daily lives, or even to bond with them on anything but an abstract level. Everything, everyone, every place, seems disconnected here; as superficially lovely as "Knight of Cups" is, it's Malick's bleakest film in some ways. Treat the world as it deserves to be treated, Rick's father says. There are no principles, only circumstances. Nobody's home. The lushness of the imagery contradicts him, but without shutting him down. The world is beautiful. There is beauty everywhere, in the land, in the light, but what difference does it make to people who are suffering from physical or emotional wounds? Near the end of the film, a minister played by Armin Mueller-Stahl says, "To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself," but the movie seems aware that it's easy to nod at this statement but harder to accept it, much less make something tangible of it.
Nobody else is making films like this. Not at this level. And certainly not with such sustained disregard for what films are supposed to do, what they are supposed to say and how they are supposed to say it. The sheer freedom of it is intoxicating if you meet the film on its own level, and accept that it's unfinished, open-ended, by design, because it's at least partly concerned with the impossibility of imposing meaningful order on experience, whether through religion, occult symbolism, mass-produced images and stories, or family lore. Time and again, we see Rick and other characters revisiting agreed-upon narratives (of blood family, of friendship, of romantic or sexual relationships) and ultimately realizing that they don't make rational, objective sense any more, and perhaps never did. The tearful climax of the meeting between Rick and Elizabeth (Portman's character) is one of the most piercing, because it concerns a shared tragedy that originated in secrets and lies.
The film seems to be fighting a losing battle to make sense of itself, to coalesce into a statement, to not fade away. This feels right. "Knight of Cups" is not a young man's movie. It's an old man's movie. A philosophically engaged, beatific, starchild-as-old-man's movie. The end is coming. What did it all mean? What else is there but sunlight, water, sex, laughter, sunlight? Why do people sneer when they hear questions like that? Why is it unacceptable to make films like "Knight of Cups," which speak in the language of poetry, fables, dreams, calendar art, Tarot cards? Why is it banal, vacuous, naive, to hear Rick's father assign redemptive meaning to "the light in the eyes of others"?
The train pulls into the station. The critic walks up the steps. The snow is falling harder.
Cut to an image of Brian Dennehy shambling down a sunny residential street in Los Angeles, the camera floating just behind his broad shoulders. His limp seems a heroic statement. He's old. He's in pain. He keeps moving forward.
Cut to the desert, the camera moving slowly towards a mound of smooth stones, and then to a hand making handprints in wet beach sand, then to a wave rolling in and erasing it.
Christian Bale as Rick
Wes Bentley as Barry
Brian Dennehy as Joseph
Isabel Lucas as Isabel
Imogen Poots as Della
Cate Blanchett as Nancy
Teresa Palmer as Karen
Freida Pinto as Helen
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth
Antonio Banderas as Tonio
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Fr. Zeitlinger