“Sigh, a new Terrence Malick movie, more of the same”, seems to opine a disconcertingly large portion of the critical establishment when confronted with a new film by the American master, as if following the release of The Tree of Life, it would’ve been conceivable that a scant five years later Malick would’ve been capable of helming a film set largely in nightclubs and pool parties, with a stripper and a high-end model as prominent characters. Knight of Cups, set in a hyper-real simulacra of contemporary L.A. with a few detours to Las Vegas, the St. Louis Arch and, natch, outer space, lays a classical mythological structure atop an intimate confessional – in over words, it’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect from a late period Malick movie. After a 20-year-absence, Malick burst back onto the scene in the late 90s with a string of epically-scaled masterworks – The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life, all lengthy period pieces that directly engage with major turning points in American history, filtered through a montage-heavy, Faulker-esque impressionistic style. Since then, Malick’s attention has shifted to shorter features set in the present day, experimenting with increasingly interiorized and elliptical narrative construction. Naturally, this has brought accusations of Malick growing lazy or losing his touch, yet I’d argue that his new films remain as radical and thematically ambitious as ever.
Rick’s attention is frequently drawn to statues and architecture designed in a neoclassical style, which suggests a slightly self-satirizing identification with the romantic masculine ideal of the silent, soulful self-determined artist, which Rick basically uses as an excuse to be as sullen and self-centred as he wants. At one point, a Greek statue of an armless woman cuts to an image of Pinto’s character modelling at a photo shoot, as Rick, watching her, intones “I had a dream I met a woman from another world”. Rick’s own casual chauvinism becomes linked to a history of male artists using their platform as a means of idealizing and hence objectifying and de-personalizing them.
Yet Malick undercuts Rick’s gaze constantly. Each time one of Rick’s girlfriends enters the film their thoughts soon takes over the soundtrack, which not only grants us a greater insight into their psyche, but also grants us a fuller understanding of Rick’s character, as it allows us to do what he’s incapable of doing: viewing the world, and himself, from the perspective of another person. What Rick doesn’t realize is that each of them matures from the experience in some way, whereas he remains emotionally static. Since its premiere, there have been a lot of complaints about Knight of Cups being yet another example of a rich, white, straight guy whining about his #firstworldproblems. This basic criticism is hard to argue with, but I’d like to point out that the same could also be said about God Damn In Search of Lost Time.
The action is divided into eight chapters, all named after a different tarot card, most of which are orchestrated around a single romantic relationship. The T.S. Eliot-bating tarot card structure elevates this seemingly low-stakes tale to epic proportions. Side characters are largely characterized through outsized, expressionistic images and gestures: Karen, first heard asking Rick “What mood am I in? Tell me. What do I think of you?”, a voiceover layered over the image of a display of mannequin heads in a windowsill, the illuminated cityscape reflecting the glass (she’s then seen dancing in front of Rick, on a stage lined with blue fluorescent lights – at first there appears to be a wall of glass between them, but then we realize that their lack of physical contact is actually down to a no-touching policy); Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, during an astonishing, set-piece that takes place in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wandering behind a projection of Bruce Nauman’s “For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers)”, her visage transformed into a silhouette; a female object of desire seen from behind a sheet of glass, the reflections of other women blending on top of her to create an impromptu super-imposition effect, an eloquent expression of Rick’s inability to see each romantic interest as an individual, rather than a broad type.
Slowly, recurring visual motifs become clear. Images of transit – Rick’s lone convertible speeding through the city at night, abstracting the passing buildings into pinpoints of artificial light; birds passing through the air; planes overhead; a recurring shot of L.A. highways seen from Rick’s dashboard, a maze of sinuously curved bridges above lending the roads the appearance of a roller coaster). Bodies of water, both natural (a beach Rick frequently visits) or unnatural (the pool of a Las Vegas resort) which hold restorative power, cleansing and replenishing Rick during moments when his crisis is it its peak. Rick wandering through desert landscapes, which could either be literal or entirely figurative, either way a signal that he’s entering a purely introspective, mental space. And, throughout, there are quick cuts to the down-and-out, underpaid workers who keep this luxury up and running.
This is Malick’s first film to be based heavily on architectural framing, with the inhabitants of the city being dwarfed by glistening man-made forms, advertisements and artificial lights, the tangible products of corporate financing funded by immaterial labour. Billboards and TVs constantly bombard the street with ads, which create a constant sense of lack and desire; for the machine to keep working there must be a constant cycle of want, whereby what was recently new and hip quickly becomes antiquated. Rick existed in a state of constant suspension largely because it’s profitable for advertising companies to keep him that way. Malick’s associative editing ties together images of Rick with spectators of obscure objects of desire. Such as a fast montage of billboards in the LA skyline, which immediately cuts to a shot of Rick staring at some placid jellyfish in an aquarium. Just as a fish cannot gain a comprehensive view of its own aquarium, because it is trapped inside, so too can Rick – nor anybody else, for that matter – gain a wider view of late capitalism as a whole, as the system’s inner mechanisms completely structure his life while he remains a simple cog within it. The systems by which those in power control those who are not design these systems as to be incomprehensible to those like Rich, who are mere consumers. It is easy to see the presence of these corrupt systems in retrospect, when they exist far in the past (hence the constant references to feudalism in Malick’s visual scheme), but it’s difficult to detect them in the present moment, when trapped in the middle of them.
The merging of modernist and neoclassical architecture that forms the backbone of Malick’s visual scheme creates the sense that the beauty of traditional art hangs over Rick’s head almost oppressively. The gender politics Rick has internalized and unconsciously reinforces are the ones that have existed for centuries, and still largely mould the discourse between the sexes to this day. This re-contextualization of neoclassical myths within the context of hyper-consumerist L.A. brings to mind another American masterwork released this year by a grandiose pop existentialist, albeit one of the opposite end of the public visibility spectrum: Kanye West’s Life of Pablo. Like Kanye, Malick does this not to bemoan how far society has fallen, but to illustrate that the issues Rick is dealing with have existed for centuries, and to attempt to use these models as a means of finding a way to get out of this existential ennui. Both Kanye and Malick experiment with the bric-a-brac of the ostensibly “low” forms of their chosen mediums in order to synthesize radical new textures, indulging gleefully in sensual pleasures, which are then used as an expression of the desire to find the sublime within the vulgar.
Knight of Cups (2016), directed by Terrence Malick, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal. Certificate 15.