October 15, 2015
Knight of Cups – US, 2015
Terrence Malick’s latest film is replete with stunning visual beauty. The film takes viewers into lavish Hollywood parties that will remind some of the depravity captured in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; circus-like nightclubs, in which female performers dangle precariously from ceiling tiles after tearing their way out of silk cocoons; and the rocky, desolate area known as life-affirming Death Valley. The film is a virtual feast for the eyes, casting viewers’ attention on breathtaking art, large serene Japanese Zen gardens, and priceless pieces of incredible artwork, and it also soothes viewers’ souls, as it sets these amazing images to some of the most piercing pieces of classical music I have heard in some time. In other words, Knight of Cups is a visual masterpiece by a director who seems to be able to come up with these with remarkable ease. I regret, therefore, that I cannot say such glowing things about the film as a whole.
As a narrative, Knight of Cups confounds and perplexes, spinning its tale in so many peculiar directions until it is simply impossible to tie all of its themes together or to achieve a clear understanding of Malick’s vision. The film is centered around a Hollywood writer named Rick (Christian Bale). The character is similar to Ben Affleck’s in To The Wonder – quiet, withdrawn, perhaps incapable of real love – and savvy viewers will notice other similarities to Malick’s previous work. Like the children in Tree of Life, Rick too has a complicated relationship with his father, and there has even been a death in the family similar to the one in that film. However, while Tree of Life touched on universal themes such as family, loss, and the lasting impact of childhood trauma, Knight of Cups takes place in a world that few people ever see and even fewer may have sympathy for the inhabitants of.
Throughout the film, we see snippets of Rick’s failed attempts at love, while often hearing Ben Kingsley’s voice narrating a story of a prince whose power is taking away from him and who then falls into a deep sleep. While he sleeps, we hear said, his father continues to write letters to him, imploring him to find his way home. We then meet Rick’s father, nicely played by Brian Dennehy, and in a way, he is doing the same thing – trying to get his eldest son to feel again. Rick, it appears, has lost the ability to truly fall in love. Malick then shows us several of Rick’s attempts at finding love. First, we meet his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett). As she explains it, Rick is a man who would rather have love experiences than experiences in true love, and subsequent experiences – including one with a stripper and another with a married woman - bear this out.
Blanchett’s appearance in the film is brief, yet her scenes with Rick tell us a great deal about him as a person and make the strongest case for viewing him with empathy. Rick himself doesn’t give us much in this regard. Rick’s other experiences are less engaging, likely as a result of the relationships they depict being less about strongly-formed connections than loose entanglements resulting from expectations of endless fun and parties coupled with perceptions of unlimited financial resources. In fact, the film is less a condemnation of Hollywood than a denunciation of the Hollywood lifestyle, which does not always go hand in hand with spiritual growth.
We meet Rick’s surviving brother, Barry. Played by Wes Bentley, I found him an interesting character, yet I also didn’t think I had a good understanding of him by the end of the film. There are hints that their father may go going senile, and he seems to have been mostly absent during his sons’ childhood. In one scene, we see him walking near what looks to be an abandoned building, and I speculated that this was the place where he had spent so many of his evenings instead of being at home. This and the other scenes involving the family are heartbreaking, for they hint of a terrible waste of opportunity, of important lost moments that now seem of the utmost value. In these scenes, Malick allows viewers close enough to feel these characters’ pain, yet never does he allow us to fully understand what actually happened so many years earlier. Instead, the voiceovers speak in broad generalities and in whispered hopes that are unfortunately frustratingly vague rather than moving. In short, viewers expecting a tidy resolution are likely to be disappointed.
I have no doubt that many of Malick’s most ardent supporters will find ample reason to praise the film – it is, after all, a visual and musical treat - yet for most people, Knight of Cups will likely be an empty, disappointing experience, a series of relationships and cryptic conversations that ultimately lead to an ending that baffles more than it satisfies. In the theater where I watched the film, there was visible discomfort, as audience members fidgeted in their seats frequently; a few people even left midway through the film, clearly deciding that it was not worth the effort it was taking to watch it. Normally, I would say they had missed something, yet with Knight of Cups, I understand their frustration. This is a film that wants to say something significant about family, happiness, and the way we can get lost in life; it ends up being a series of snippets that never quite add up to anything narratively. In other words, Knight of Cups is a film sorely in need of dialogue that ties everything together, and as many of us know, that’s just not what you get in a Terrence Malick film nowadays. (in theaters in Taiwan; opening in the United States on March 4, 2016)
2 and a half stars