It's becoming increasingly clear that The Tree of Life represents something of a turning point in the career of Terrence Malick. It's one of the greatest films of the 21st century to date; a wildly ambitious, profoundly spiritual examination of some of life's biggest questions that also manages to be a beautifully intimate, personal coming-of-age tale. Malick has always been a deeply spiritual filmmaker, but the The Tree of Life marks the moment when his films began to feel like hymns, prayers and reveries. Ever since that grand cinematic epiphany, his work has become increasingly untethered from anything resembling traditional storytelling. To the Wonder and Knight of Cups employ similar techniques, taking a familiar sort of story (a relationship drama and a La Dolce Vita-esque quest for fulfillment, respectively), breaking it into opaque fragments and filtering those fragments through one of Malick's heartfelt sermons. Still, even those who were captured and moved by To the Wonder may find Knight of Cups challenging. Malick's films usually require audiences to meet them halfway. This one wanders off into the wilderness and asks you to find it.
The film opens with two pieces of narration that give us a solid clue about what kind of movie this is and where it's headed. First, we hear an excerpt of The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's 17th century religious allegory about a man named Christian who travels to The Celestial City to seek deliverance from his sin. Then, we hear the parable that gives the film its title: a father sends his son on a mission to find a priceless pearl, but along the way, the son drinks from a cup that causes him to fall into a deep slumber and forget his mission.
In Knight of Cups, our wayfarer is a screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale, The New World), who is still struggling to come to terms with the death of one of his brothers. He drifts through the superficial comforts of his privileged life, seeking solace in the arms of beautiful women and in the confines of beautiful locations, trying and failing to find something that will alleviate his burden. He's looking for the pearl, but he doesn't know that's what he's looking for, so he looks in the wrong places. He looks in the wrong places over and over and over again for nearly two hours.
In nearly every scene, both Bale and Emmanuel Lubezki's camera are in constant motion, reminding us in fairly blunt fashion that we are witnessing a journey. Rick never seems to be in a hurry, but he rarely stands still. Whether he's spending a day with a lover, catching up with his family, exploring the confines of a mansion or wandering through an empty Las Vegas landscape, he always seems to be walking forward. On many occasions, we find ourselves looking at the back of his head as he listlessly ambles through yet another paradise. When we see his face, it always seems to be sporting the same expression: weary, empty, defeated.
As the film proceeds, Rick drifts in and out of relationships with different women: an energetic young rebel (Imogen Poots, Need for Speed), a soft-spoken model (Freida Pinto, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), a stripper (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies), a married woman (Natalie Portman, Black Swan) and others. They are uniformly beautiful, and like other Malick women before them, they twirl and smile and radiate light (they also get undressed pretty frequently, and the way the camera ogles them led a friend of mine to observe that Knight of Cups might have been called Male Gaze: The Movie). All of these women seem lovely and loving in different ways, but none of these relationships give Rick what he's looking for.
Elsewhere, we see Rick's relationships with people who know him a bit more intimately: his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy, First Blood), his brother Barry (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), his friend Tonio (Antonio Banderas, The Mask of Zorro), his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett, Carol). We're missing many pieces of his history with each of these people, but Malick provides a lot of small moments that speak volumes. He looks attentively at the way Nancy angrily jerks away when Rick touches her shoulder, the apologetic despair in Joseph's eyes, the way Rick simply patiently absorbs all of Barry's passive-aggressive fury. Insights appear like reflections in a pond, then vanish as Malick throws a stone into the water and pulls us somewhere else.
The repetitive nature of this story will undoubtedly try the patience of many viewers (even some devoted Malick acolytes), and some will find the film's perspective difficult to connect with. Why should we pity this man who has everything? Eventually, it becomes clear that this is a film about suffering, so why didn't Malick choose to spotlight a character who leads a less comfortable life (like, say, one of the physically disabled patients Blanchett's character so empathetically tends to)? This is an understandable perspective, but there's a very specific reason Malick chose someone like Rick as his protagonist: Knight of Cups isn't saying that Rick's suffering is deeper than anyone else's, but reminding us that nothing of earthly value will help us heal. Unless Rick gets to the root of the problem, he will move on from one temporary comfort to another, finding endless pleasure but never peace.
There are many conversations in the film, but we only hear fleeting excerpts. The dialogue often sounds quiet and distant, as if Malick is acknowledging that much of it is simply meaningless noise. He gives priority to his trademark moments of whispered voiceover narration, as pieces of private thoughts float to the surface. Frequently, words will be overtaken by music (a vast collection of assorted material from Grieg, Chopin, Debussy, Arvo Part, Hanan Townshend, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Biosphere and many others), as the director locates the one brief moment from a symphony that perfectly expresses the feeling he wants to convey. The film's “main theme” of sorts is the central melody from Wojciech Kilar's “Exodus,” a lovely, exotic and slightly playful idea that appropriately suggests both a Biblical epic and a seductive dance.
Malick has so little interest in conventional storytelling techniques that there are moments when his storytelling feels unbelievably shallow. The assorted romantic relationships he serves up have no depth, and they certainly don't look much like real life (nobody does that much frolicking when Emmanuel Lubezki's not around). Likewise, Malick's view of the Glamourous Side of Hollywood often seems unconvincing, like a painter depicting something someone once described to him rather than something he has actually seen. However, in each of these scenes, Malick is aiming for something higher than reality. He wants to show us how Rick's life feels, and despite the film's slow pace, there's an urgency in the way Malick uses images and sounds to point us to his message. He has the passion of a missionary who speaks a language only he can fully understand.
There are so many potent images littered throughout the film, but the scene that haunts me is the one where Malick presents underwater shots of dogs diving into a pool in an attempt to retrieve chew toys. They snap and struggle, but each time, their prize slips just of reach. It's a beautifully condensed snapshot of Rick's story, and the entire film is built on such moments. Rick walks by signs reading “Out of Order” and “Help Wanted.” Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) shows up for fifteen seconds to observe that, “My life is like Call of Duty on easy mode... I just walk around and fuck shit up.” John Gielgud's voice floats onto the soundtrack once again, detailing Christian's progress as Christian details Rick's progress.
I don't think it counts as a spoiler to say that Rick eventually finds his pearl. Marcello, the protagonist of La Dolce Vita, looked high and low for a way to combat his existential despair, but ultimately found nothing. The protagonist of Knight of Cups takes a very similar tour of the lavish world he lives in, and finally attains the sort of understanding poor Marcello never found. Though he's no fundamentalist (indeed, Christians who adored The Tree of Life may balk at the way this film throws tarot cards and mysticism into the mix), Malick has embraced his role as a preacher, and he firmly believes that salvation exists for those who are willing to pursue it.
Perhaps fittingly, appreciating Knight of Cups can be as challenging as finding that elusive pearl. I'll be honest with you: I felt bored every now and then when I was actually watching the film, which isn't something I've experienced with any of Malick's other films. I grew frustrated with the film's repetitiveness, with its obviousness and with its reliance on techniques that are starting to feel awfully familiar. Still, the ending – a conclusion as graceful and powerful as the one supplied by To the Wonder – struck a chord with me. I spent the evening wrestling with the film, and when I woke up the next morning, I found myself deeply moved by its strange beauty and felt a surprising desire to see it again and continue exploring its mysteries. To paraphrase the book of Isaiah: “Verily thou art a man that hidest thyself, O Malick of America, our director.”
Knight of Cups
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2016