(Dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)
Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky. This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style. Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, one could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths and music, amongst other traits, and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career. In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitional return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs. After this, “The New World” marked a huge leap in style, marked by is collaboration with the brilliant Mexican cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure. In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.
“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific. Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is empty, lost, spiritually empty and longing. He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness. In particular is Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings. Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father who, while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) he is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle. There are also pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey. None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression. The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations. Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be familiar with.
Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless. This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music. Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path. Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing. One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.
There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot. The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations. The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies. Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear. The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card. They are in order:
The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)
The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)
The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)
Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)
The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)
The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)
Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)
And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.
Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan. Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim. The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text. Indeed with the title being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion (the rock peak in the desert at the end?), burdened by knowledge of his sin. The final liturgical layer comes from an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:
“The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.”
Rick’s father recites this tale in voice over, over low-res video footage of a childhood, presumably memories of Rick’s.
And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world. Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games in utterly different ways, turning this oh so familiar simulacrum into a non-euclidean city of nightmares. It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios. “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Helen (Freida Pinto) at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction. Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress. From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower. Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.
Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution. What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ? Many will find the subjects, methods and shots to be too similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”. Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground. However, such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision, deserves applause. Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form. That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement. Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.