Knight of Cups ★★★½

Right at the outset of Knight of Cups, a caption suggests, from the director, that for an optimum impression, you should listen to the film loud. Loud, that’s the word used. Sound and noise are two of the most key twin bedfellows to Terrence Malick’s film, and indeed the word film can be used loosely to describe this. It’s more like a visual art installation, a free form observation on a man, on life, on the absence and simultaneous fullness of life. If that sounds as pretentious as it reads, then you’re halfway to discovering whatever truth lies at the heart of Malick’s film, which often reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut if Stanley Kubrick had completely dispensed with a script and decided to let Tom Cruise wander the streets of New York for three hours, while a voice-over pontificates on existence. Exchange Cruise for Christian Bale, and swop NYC for LA, and you have Knight of Cups. Clearly something profound, or intending to be profound, but about as much entertainment value as counting individual bricks in a wall.

That’s not to say this is a bad film, because as ever with Malick his work is subjective. He’s a unique man and a unique talent for so many reasons, and he speaks to the cosmos and the basic tenets of existence unlike almost anyone else, striving for some kind of symbiotic understanding of man’s relationship to the universe and his place in it. You can see that in so many of his films, from The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, and now in Knight of Cups. The only difference is that in this outing, that profundity just feels too impenetrable and obtuse even for someone as intentionally unfathomable as Malick, to the point you end up watching without watching, more absorbing and wondering as to meaning within the masses of unfocused subtext.

You wonder if everything truly is precise, because the impression is the opposite – therein lies the paradox. Malick isn’t the kind of filmmaker who cleaves to any storytelling rules but equally he’s never struck me as someone who isn’t meticulous in what he’s attempting to achieve. There’s nothing wrong with a lack of traditional movie structure, indeed most often it creates the most vivid & original work in age where everything is constantly repackaged, but sometimes Knight of Cups feels like an edited series of recorded moments only Malick truly knows and understands the meaning of. Maybe that’s precisely the point.

If so, then Knight of Cups does what many pieces of cinema simply don’t have the breadth to do, and that’s fundamentally make you question the relationship between audience and the director. What does Malick want you to take from this or want you to understand? Is it to feel when Rick, Bale’s Hollywood screenwriter who lies at the centre of the metaphysical pontification at the heart of what you can’t even really describe as a story, finally comes to take some feeling from a life he’s lost touch with? Are you meant to connect with Malick’s obsession with contrasting the natural world with the towering megalopolis that is Los Angeles? Should you be reviled at Malick’s clear distaste for the vacuous, facile, almost Romanesque frivolity of Rick’s lifestyle, of the Hollywood lifestyle he is constantly tempted back into? It could be any of those or none.

All of those components are in there, around Malick’s titled studies of different aspects of Rick’s inner torment – his strained relationship with brother Wes Bentley & father Brian Dennehy, marked by family tragedy; his mourning over losing Cate Blanchett’s muse, indeed all his interactions with women such as Imogen Poots’ hipster social revolutionary or Natalie Portman’s demure woman who seems to awaken him sexually. It’s odd because for a film so heavily about Rick’s consumption of women, it’s remarkably sexless. Then again, Rick is muted and Bale plays him so, a blank and black canvas (literally) on which emotions dance around and bounce off. Maybe we’re meant to simply ingest everything without feeling.

You may feel nothing from Knight of Cups, or its absence of meaning may bewitch you. Terrence Malick’s almost ever moving camera, his near constant use of voice over soliloquy, his cutting between towering images of avarice against lights dancing on the earth’s surface and glorious natural vistas, his powerful use of sound almost constantly, be it Jonny Greenwood’s ephemeral score, or planes and traffic and music and voices and just noise, noise everywhere. Or you may be bored, intensely bored at the lack of structure, of character, of story, of concrete understanding. Truthfully, both of those could apply to me.

Though never captivating or emotional, it’s sweeping and grand and provoking, even when you don’t realise, and chances are pieces of it, moments, visuals, interactions, may seep unknowingly into your bones. It’s just not entertaining, not even remotely, and it’s a piece of film you must choose carefully when, where and how you watch, ideally without interruptions. Yet another personal and alienating work from Terrence Malick, it at least continues to cement him as truly unlike any other living filmmaker of today.

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