(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2016)
If the movies are to be believed, Los Angeles is one ugly place. It eats its dreamers alive (Mulholland Drive), harbors severe divisions in economic and racial strata (Safe), and is often depicted as nothing more than a cesspool of disreputable people and seedy crime (L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction, and hilariously The Big Lebowski). And yet, visual storytellers can’t seem to get enough of the world-famous metropolis. From Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown to last year’s Tangerine, filmmakers continue to mine compelling narratives and memorable characters from L.A.’s easily lampooned traits and glaring flaws. Leave it to one of today’s greatest cinematic artists Terrence Malick, then, to find beauty where most others only seek to expose ugliness. It takes true talent to uncover such beauty amidst the superficiality and excess of the city’s elite as well as the crowded streets below that play host to the many underprivileged and underserved. With his latest, Knight of Cups, Malick does just that. He never glorifies the brokenness his camera captures – as so many of his contemporaries do with their increasingly exhausting “but that’s the point” style of exploitative filmmaking (von Trier, Refn, Tarantino) – but rather allows the beautiful and the ugly to coexist in a manner that only he can.
In this way, Knight of Cups fits perfectly within the framework of his slowly expanding oeuvre as Malick has explored this juxtaposition from Badlands onward. Too, it follows the trajectory he laid the groundwork for arguably with The New World where exhilaratingly edited sequences are pieced together in post-production to form a collage of visuals that tell a relatively straightforward story. In the filmmaker’s latter day work, then, every image is deliberate, yet somehow feels spontaneous or free flowing. It’s as if you might just see anything at any time, and yet each shot, each image undoubtedly means something. While his detractors only see pretentious self-seriousness, his devoted faithful find poetry and significant meaning in this wholly unique style of filmmaking. His latest is no exception. Knight of Cups follows its direct predecessor To the Wonder in pushing traditional narrative even further into the background almost to the point of abstraction.
The film loosely follows the exploits of a successful Hollywood screenwriter who finds anything but fulfillment as he indulges in his hedonistic impulses nurtured by the L.A. lifestyle he leads. Rick (Christian Bale) is unfaithful to his wife (Cate Blanchett), lives estranged from his father (Brian Dennehy), uses women like drugs, and carelessly throws money away at lavish parties and on expensive trips. Malick’s camera captures it all as naked women frolic about luxurious hotel rooms, as overly dressed partygoers gather at multi-million-dollar estates, and as Rick bounces from relationship to relationship. And yet, as expected, all of it leaves him empty. He is a lost soul in a world that promises happiness with each swipe of a credit card or each sexual conquest. As with The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, and especially To the Wonder, Malick almost completely eschews dialogue in favor of voiceover narration to chronicle Rick’s existential pilgrimage. It’s a fittingly intimate approach to penetrating his subject’s troubled psyche; voiceovers marked by dissatisfaction and hopelessness wondrously belie the images of the seemingly endless good times they accompany.
In other ways, Knight of Cups builds upon the aesthetic Malick has been refining since his masterful debut. Even more than To the Wonder, here he trades the wonders of the natural world for those created by humans. It goes without saying that the partnership between Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki who have worked together since The New World certainly ranks amongst cinema’s most rewardingly fruitful. Under Malick’s direction, Lubezki shoots buildings, billboards, and highways like the billowing wheat fields of Days of Heaven, or the lush, green jungles of The Thin Red Line, or the unspoiled lands of The New World. The result is a feast of arresting visuals that could convince anyone L.A. is the most gorgeous spot on the planet. Seemingly insignificant images serve as the film’s most striking shots – an open-mouthed dog retrieving a toy underwater caught in slow motion, a static shot of a brightly illuminated parking garage, a child swaying back and forth on a swing set, her movement captured most likely using a GoPro.
Too, Malick continues his trend of redefining the role of an actor’s performance by flattening celebrity and bending star power to fit his abstract aesthetic. The film is filled to the brim with major Hollywood talent, but it’s difficult to call anything any one of them does acting. They are more fixtures of the frame, no more important than their surroundings. If there’s one downside to his tendency to downplay celebrity (which he’s received flack for since The Thin Red Line) in Knight of Cups, it’s that it threatens to cheapen his characters. We know and understand Rick, not because of Bale’s performance but because of his voiceovers and the time and attention Malick’s camera devotes to him. The supporting characters aren’t given that same attention and are thus far less convincing. This is particularly troublesome with regards to the women in the film. At one point Antonio Banderas’s playboy character compares women to flavors. Some days he might want strawberry, other times raspberry. Unfortunately (and more than likely unintentionally), the film almost treats them the same. As Malick parades woman after woman in front of the camera – whether A-lister or extra – we’re left to wonder if their individual journeys are as valid as Rick’s. It’s a flaw in an otherwise gorgeous film that documents the woes of decadence that send our protagonist spiraling toward disaster.
Redemption is never far away in Malick’s world, however, and though Rick’s dead-end wandering through the emptiness of L.A.’s landscape consumes almost the entire film’s runtime, Knight of Cups hints at progress for this wayward pilgrim in its final moments. For some, the ambiguity in its finale may prove a lot less satisfying than the promise of new life at the end of The Thin Red Line or the victory of the way of grace in The Tree of Life or the closure the former lovers attain in To the Wonder, but it remains another remarkably hopeful chapter in Malick’s canon as its ending suggests a new beginning. Whatever Malick’s specific religious or philosophical beliefs with regards to this world, he consistently delivers some of the medium’s most beautiful, life-affirming films of any filmmaker working today.