Malick's unfairly maligned latest feature is a genuine masterwork, and sees the filmmaker continue to push his aesthetic in new and radical directions
Knight of Cups continues Malick’s experimentation with representing memory through cinematic form. The inspiration here seems to be Malick’s early years in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter, before his directorial career got off of the ground (Malick’s credits included Dirty Harry and Deadhead Miles – if that surprises you, remember that Malick can mount a damn well-crafted action set-piece when it interests him). Though Rick (Christian Bale) doesn’t seem to do all that much work; he spends most of his time cruising around in his convertible, idly wandering the streets, and attending Hollywood parties that are shot and edited like a bizarre and glorious combination of late Godard, Stroheim, Mann and Murnau (there’s even a brief beach-set sequence shot on early DV cameras which seems to be a deliberate homage to Godard’s In Praise of Love, and an image of a woman shrouded in darkness, dancing lithely against a blur of digital noise reminiscent of the opening shot of Mann’s Miami Vice).
Although his lifestyle is hedonistic, Rick seems to have difficultly relaxing; he experiences all of this with an air of slight detachment, as if there’s always someplace else he’d rather be, and his inability to enjoy the present moment to the full is a constant drain on him. The first lines of the film recite a myth about a knight who was sent by his father to search for treasure. When he got there, the knight drank a potion that made him forget about his task and where he came from. The parallels with Rick’s situation are clear. Rick is a loner enmeshed in a culture of gentrification and high-end consumerism, cut off from his familial and cultural heritage. His ennui isn’t sated by the bombardment of cheap pleasures that keep him in a state of perpetual distraction. Rich describes himself as feelings like “fragments of a person” rather than a whole individual, and the trajectory of the film tracks his attempt to synthesize these fragments, impose a unified narrative onto his disparate thoughts, experiences and memories. The action is constructed as a free-associative extended montage of fleeting images, conventionally constructed scenes condensed into brief flashes of action (you’d be hard-pressed to find a shot that lasts longer than 5 seconds). This is combined with a rich soundscape that combines classical music, synchronized dialogue and snippets of voice-overs.
Somewhere buried in this stream of poetic imagery is the semblance of a plot, several in fact, but they’re mostly relegated to the edges, used to loosely structure the images rather than being their driving force. Rick floats through life with a constant attitude of semi-detachment and semi-commitment. As his ex-wife tells him “You never really wanted to be totally inside or marriage, or outside it, either”. Even when he’s with one of his many beaus, his gaze is constantly distracted by young women walking the streets, which doesn’t signal lechery so much as a serious fear of intimacy; by telling himself that there are always other options out there, he gets to excuse himself from seriously investing in whoever he’s with. The film is structured by the series of women who come into Rick’s life, nearly all of whom are initially strongly attracted to his emotional unavailability, and take on the challenge of trying to access his interiority. These relationships typically end up the same way – the muse either grows tired of fruitlessly trying to break through his taciturn exterior, feeling that the love they communicate to him isn’t being returned, or coming to recognize the myriad of weaknesses his enigmatic reserve is designed to mask. Like most destructive relationships, each one seems partly motivated by mutual masochism. “I see how you look at me. You think I could make you crazy,” teases Imogen Poots, “Crack you out of your shell, make you suffer”; later, Karen echoes this when she is seen playfully pushing Rick into a plastic cage.
Filmed almost entirely using handheld cameras, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture images with an effortless sense of graceful drift, seemingly unmoored from gravity. Driven by Rick’s constantly wandering gaze, the focal point of each shot constantly shifts; a recurring visual tic is a shot that begins with the ostensible subjects of the scene in centre, before the camera casually reframes to take in the sight of a spectacular or intriguing detail in the background or just past the edges of the image. As with Ben Affleck’s character in To The Wonder, Rick hardly speaks on screen, mostly remains expressionless throughout, and is incredibly passive. This is another example of Malick imagining his protagonist as an audience identification figure and a structuring absence simultaneously – appropriate for the portrayal of aloof, intensely introverted characters who prefer to observe life than take part in it, and hence erase themselves from the world and the thoughts of others. “I’ve spent 30 years not living life”, he reflects at one point, “but ruining it, for myself and others”.
Being a Malick movie, Knight of Cups speaks volumes about its particular milieu – that is, Hollywood circa 2016, a labyrinthine, modernist metropolis of glass, marble and steel, glutted with screens that constantly produce high-res digital images, as disposable as they are seductive. “No one cares about reality anymore”, muses Teresa Palmer’s Karen, who we then see working a stripper pole, encouraging Rick to morph her into his ideal woman through words. Later, one of Rick’s flings tells him “You don’t want love, you want a love experience”. One of the film’s primary themes is the idea that narcissism is fostered by a culture of immediate gratification, in which pretty much every possible experience can be downloaded and enjoyed in a simulated form. When every sight and sound in the world can easily be Googled, the authentic can be difficult to locate. Why work hard for an authentic pleasure when you can easily settle for a commoditized one?
Knight of Cups (2016), directed by Terrence Malick, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal. Certificate 15.