Terrence Malick is incapable of creating an ugly image. But with Knight of Cups he has assembled hundreds of vulgar ones. This is nothing like the brutal poetry found in The Thin Red Line which explored the horrors of combat. Knight of Cups is after an abstract debauchery. Its perverse vulgarity comes from beautiful people, all of them lithe (save Brian Dennehy), several of them nude (thankfully not Brian Dennehy) as they wander through the fucked up orbit of Christian Bale’s screenwriter Rick. These are models, actresses, and strippers frolicking through the sprawling decadence of Los Angeles, a city willed into existence by dreamers in the middle of the desert.
Malick’s camera, helmed once again by Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, lingers on L.A.’s overstuffed, billboard-strewn skylines and the empty, anonymous sterility of high end lofts. The depiction of opulent dining rooms and swimming pools of a billionaire playboy are less “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” than a Fellini-esque carnival of the grotesque. The effect is almost too much when the film takes a scenic detour further into the desert to Las Vegas with its tacky casino façades which are even more garish and unbelievable than the backlots of Warner Bros. studios.
Knight of Cups is the third film in a row of Malick’s more abstract, “personal” films, for lack of a better term, and the movie shares several elements with its forebears. Like The Tree of Life, it features the untimely demise of a sibling and the disappointments of a father. And like the unjustly neglected To the Wonder, the main character is grasping to find purpose in the eyes of a lover. And yet for all of the familiar soul-searching and frayed relationships, Malick manages to inject flashes of, dare I say, humor into the film. How better to explain the fashion photographer that ferociously demands a model look like “a mom from ’75 that takes steroids and fucks girls during the daytime”? Or better yet the fleeting glimpse of Jennifer Aniston on a skyscraper’s side shilling for Smart Water. This is the absurdity of La-La Land on display. This in addition to the film casting several contemporary comedians such as Joe Lo Truglio, Nick Kroll, and Dan Harmon, none of whom tell a joke, which itself is also pretty funny.
With each successive film Malick is proving to be an artist akin to the ever-experimental pop music producer Brian Eno. Eno has famously created songs by recording the basic tracks–including the hook, the backbeat, the initial inspiration of the song–and then layering esoteric and oddball embellishment over that framework, before deleting the original tracks to create a new type of music. As Malick has shown, he is not afraid to do this with film. Sean Penn remarked that The Tree of Life in script form was a dense, heavily plotted-out, beautifully written story and yet the end result bore very little resemblance to the writing on the page. The Malick of the last decade has been increasingly interested in what cinematic schematics he can subtract from his films so that he can capture some sort of elusive, essential feeling. The films are after “the verisimilitude of dreams” as is intoned by the bodyless voice of Ben Kingsley in the opening moments of Knight of Cups. Characters shout at one another onscreen but the soundtrack is silent. For that matter, the last two Malick leads have been practically mute, becoming as elemental and ornamental to their surroundings as the sea and the sky.
Going back to Brian Eno, a particular Oblique Strategy creeps into Knight of Cups: “repetition is a form of change”. Not only does Rick find himself in an endless cycle of gorgeous, playful women that offer up a hollow sort of solace, the film also returns to two types of images, that of characters underwater and shots lingering on children. At times the water can represent the playful freedom that Rick is questing for, but once the moment arrives when he’s submerged, he is nothing short of drowning. Meanwhile he is incessantly interested in the idea of having a child of his own. Both his ex-wife and mother bring up the idea of fatherhood to him. Yet pointedly, the scene where one of his lovers discovers she is pregnant falls under a section called “Death”. The film is divided into a half dozen of these sections, their titles taken from tarot cards, which roughly sync up with the arrival of a different character in Rick’s life. There’s “The High Priestess” and “The Hanged Man”. It’s more poetic than calling them “The Stripper” and “The Brother”.
As part of Malick’s continuing journey of personal expression, Knight of Cups offers up some new ideas and avenues for exploration. One could easily get lost in its serpentine rhythms. But the film never resolves its own central crisis. Or maybe that crisis is never as profound as Malick hoped it would be. Perhaps it’s too difficult to search for transcendence in a handsome, successful man’s quest for meaning beyond the valley of the dolls. Over his last three pictures Terrence Malick has torn open the psyche of a man but the best Malick film of the century still remains the one with the most feminine perspective. It’s the one that gave cinema a truly New World.