Knight of Cups ★★★

The life of a celebrity is one that many would attempt to penetrate, to find a gap within the lives of such figures and hopefully place themselves amongst it, some view upon such a world with a distance, whilst others dive head on to its atmosphere and hope that they would find themselves among riches and fame. A figure’s rise and downfall within the entertainment industry is far from novel within the cinematic format as any iterations in the past have been dwelled upon, some more profound than others; but left within the hands of an auteur like Malick, there are crevices that become uncovered and lead itself into a journey that hopes to shed revelatory light to its curious audience.

With the Malick treatment, Knight of Cups ambitiously attempts to penetrate the soul of a seemingly conflicted individual, the advisory words of his past arise and lingers, a conflict that pertains with the beautiful artificiality and gloss of the industry, a man in a state of reevaluation, in search for an epiphany or push that would direct him to true happiness. As he travels wanderingly in the familiar tracks of his natural environment, people intersect into his life with many seemingly faceless, demonstrating no value as they flock together in gatherings with a simultaneous touch of class and frantic, a convention for business and pleasure that often become lifeless noise to Rick’s ears.

Knight of Cups initially recounts a story of a man fallen from grace through his extensive search for a pearl, upon his destination was offered a cup that has faded the memories of his past and his initial intentions; a tale that rings true to Malick’s protagonist, truly capturing the sense of hollowness in his existence, an encounter between himself and the individuals from his roots, his brother and father, reminding him of what he previously was, whilst simultaneously in constant tension within one another when placed upon close proximity, arising conflict through their clashing outlooks, a man now distant from the humble attributes that long ago shaped him.

In Malick’s search for redemption for its protagonist’s soul, the road is paved with sterility, a personal journey that leaves very little window for the peering audiences to enter and demonstrate empathy; we view his life from a distance, observant of the anomalies and beauty, whether natural or artificial, that surrounds him rather than share the experience and provide Rick with a comforting hand in the shoulder within moments of deep confusion and sadness. We see the pain and suffering left upon his closest relationships, a dysfunction rooted by his shortcomings, washed by the influence of his world, drawing these loved ones in and crumbling their foundations in the process; he becomes alienated by their raging and disappointed hearts, enduring a life of loneliness that presently seem to lack cure.

All this established, yet Malick fails to grasp the heart of his viewers, linked by his present adoration for the abstract, lacking of a script as he and his cast enters into production, led only by the fundamental descriptions that he provides them, acting upon instinct and impulsive concepts rather than formally rigidly constructing them, an arc for its characters and themes this film severely lacks of in its surface, it finds comfort in the meandering pace that recalls the aesthetic brought upon his previous film — which in itself was another scriptless venture — but thankfully what we are left with here is a feature far less frustrating than To The Wonder.

While To The Wonder treads on its thesis with confusion and indulgence, Malick demonstrates a sharper edge to Knight of Cups as its satire surfaces predominantly, panning its world, less through Rick’s eyes but through Malick’s. We view upon the objective excess and artificiality, shaping our outlook of such an environment with a contemplative thoroughness that unfortunately becomes constantly interrupted as it returns to its central streamline, Rick’s personal journey. If Knight of Cups’ macro themes were dissected further, allowed for more taut moments for audience analysation, then this film would have been an experience that grips our fascination.

Despite frustration shared by much of Malick’s previous acting collaborations, it is evident that upon venturing in such a partnership, the road is not entirely singular, as the actors themselves do not succumb completely to the vision of its creator, delivering a respective arc for their roles to justify its existence, a quality that seems to be further missing after the grand success of The Tree of Life — a filmmaker now dwelling upon abstract visualisation and fundamental descriptions to feed the direction of its cast — a complete sense of trust that further aids a thematic hollowness and stagnation; Rick and the many souls that pass through his life would have been less regarded as pure symbols and instead as full rounded characters if Malick returned to a more formal preparation of storytelling, an overwritten masterpiece that slowly trims itself to find that perfect balance.

In vein with his filmography, Malick’s latest is a visual treat that perfectly captures the conditions of his characters, delivering a lifestyle that becomes thoughtful and occasionally graceful upon Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki’s eyes, stimulating our eyes and holding our attention even in areas of narrative dormancy, heights that may have not been surpassed by his previous works — notably those that attempt to recreate a distinct time and place of our past — but excellent in its own right. Hanan Townshend, previously collaborated with Malick in To The Wonder, delivering compositions more inviting and profound than what was previously demonstrated, encapsulating the audience during jabbing dramas and flourishing romantics, aiding in the development of its satire and themes, a fitting companion to Lubezki’s invitingly striking visuals.

A return to form Knight of Cups is not, but a step in a more assuring direction, it finds Malick still at his most indulgent but demonstrating a sense of control and sharpness that was frightfully lost in his previous endeavour. I hope his mistakes would force him to reevaluate the assembly of his upcoming film, still untitled and unknown of its date of release but it is undoubtedly a highly anticipated one, despite the lukewarm response that surrounds his latest project.

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