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It begins with an earthquake, or at least after a series of images and loosely connected spoken parables have passed where a disembodied voice tells of a prince who is given a potion and forgets who he is. We see Rick (Christian Bale) in various states of self implosion amid scattered, beautiful, languid images of homes, children, skylines, earth, nature, hope, and love. For a moment, it pauses and in his bed, alone, the room begins to shake. He rises and falls as it escalates. Things crash about the room, outside, people rush to the streets. It’s a minor quake, but all quakes feels like they might be the worst. Thus is the story of Rick.
It’s twelve minutes before anyone on screen speaks and when it happens, it is as ethereal and dreamy as the introduction, and disappears as quickly as every scene comes and goes. We are meant to wonder. Not about why, nor how, nor who. Just wonder. We learn that Rick is a screenwriter and is suffering despite his success, haunted by the mistakes of his failed marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett), his relationship with his frustrated father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wese Bentley) and the death of his other brother who may or may not have committed suicide. Rick is spiraling out of control, depressed by his life and compensating with alcohol, parties, and lots of stunning, eager young women. His life is empty, filled with excess, and like an earthquake, crumbling under his feet.
None of this is delivered in any kind of recognizable narrative, but anyone watching isn’t really expecting it to be. Instead, it is an often fractured, seemingly random collection of images and voiceovers that make no attempt to spin sense in the traditional manner. There is nearly no spoken dialogue, at least heard from characters on screen. Most is heard as narration or commentary or simply non-sensical poetry.
This isn’t new territory for director Terrance Malick, who seems more and more happy in existential experimentation as his films progress. He finds comfort in chaos and there can be no denying his visionary direction. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Revenant) once again absolutely compels us to keep to watching, but there are moments in this film that are more akin to a Godfrey Reggio film, telling more with images than any words could tell, but since he populates his tales with hints of cohesiveness, it’s a challenge to try and make it all feel connected and sensible, a formidable task that may not offer the rewards your looking for.
But back to the women. The film is focused on Bale’s character, as he is the bit of flotsam we follow bobbing along on the angry sea, but it is the women he encounters on his journey that make the real waves. Unfortunately, none are given the time or the space to truly flourish. Aside from the dozens of astonishingly (often nude) women Rick parties and sleeps with throughout, there are six others whom we come to know all to briefly. There’s Nancy, as mentioned above, but also Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) who is married herself and in love with Rick, Helen (Freida Pinto) a model who wants more but realizes there is none, and Della (Imogen Poots) who starts the film, a wonderfully conceived waif of a character who asks if she’s woken Rick up. Sadly, each has barely 10 minutes of screen time. Like everyone, they speak in prose, some sentences broken, fading in and out or disappearing into the next line or the ambient sounds of the moment. Flesh is abundant in the girls who do little but fill in the space between each moment, the camera lingering on a bare shoulder, waist, leg, neck and more, teases of the sumptuous life Rick lives within but doesn’t fully occupy. It’s tempting to say that these are satirical of the vapidness in mainstream movie making, but less likely the more it continues.
Many familiar faces pop up in the movie, most noticeably at a celebrity party. Antonio Banderas appears to be the host of the gathering but that really is not important, as he and they all are gone in an instant. That’s not new in movies, nor is it all that bothersome, but here, feels a bit distracting as it tries to give legitimacy to Rick’s career when his career has no real weight in the overall work. Most are underused, especially Dennehy, who gets a fair share of the voiceover work but does little more than visibly embody age and regret. Bale publicly applauded Malick’s approach, where the director didn’t tell the actors what the story is about. But that feels like part of the problem. It often seems like that is exactly what is happening, that actors are being given direction as the moment is being filmed, especially in numerous scenes of actors walking along the city streets.
While this film is, by the narrowest of margins, more easy to grasp than Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), it is still a magnificent piece of beautiful frustration and one’s toleration of it will vary for sure, much like any of his other movies. Film shouldn’t always be easy. Certainly, many go to the cinema to relax and let go, to see and experience something light and entertaining. But films can also challenge us, force us to examine something more carefully than we are used to or even expected to. Perhaps too much so in popular culture are things formulaic. Maybe we need to have that mixed up once in awhile to make us reconsider where we are at. Experiments are all about exploration, mistakes, discovery and risk. They don’t always succeed, but they pave paths for something that might. Malick is an experimenter and while Knight of Cups doesn’t always work, its ambition is genuinely moving. Much like Rick himself, how you come through it will be a personal journey. The film’s final word is fitting.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Antonio Banderas, Teresa Palmer