Knight of Cups ★★

[4]

"Try not to get your head too far up your own ass."

On the one hand it's a great thing that digital cinema, along with a sudden burst of later-life vigor, has amped up Terrence Malick's productivity. At this point he's making films at approximately the rate of a "normal" filmmaker, rather than that of an oracle who descends Mt. Olympus once every decade-and-a-half, film cans in each arm. And it should be noted, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are achieving stunning digital images, matched in their potency only by Claire Denis / Agnès Godard, and the work that Fabrice Aragno has done on the last two JLG films. There are sequences in Knight of Cups -- underwater shots, travelling skies, urban landscapes, and the like -- that conjure memories of the very best moments in Leviathan, Goodbye to Language, Beau Travail and, indeed, The Tree of Life. These purely formal achievements should not be downplayed.

However. It seems to me that the major problem with Knight of Cups is that Malick is in considerably less control of his materials this time around than he was with Tree of Life and To The Wonder. To dip into the popular parlance: we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Terrence Malick is a narrative filmmaker who doesn't know what he's doing. He's a cine-poet who knows exactly what he's doing, but he doesn't do everything equally well.

His later films -- The New World and The Tree of Life, especially -- are successful for a good reason. Even though he began his career with the relative intimacy of Badlands, Malick is a Heideggerian, steeped in Hölderlin and the Nibelungenleid. He finds the most natural mode for expression in the grand gesture and the cosmic view. It's true, the grandiose tone of Malick voiceover ("Mother...father...") has been open for parody; distinct styles, especially vulnerable ones, always are. But the power of Malick's best films has been their ability to articulate ground-level human experience with a more universal and (let's just say it) Christian perspective.

Inasmuch as To The Wonder marked a departure, it held onto this general tendency. It simply made it explicit, not only by posing a narrative question about faith and morality (should Ben Affleck's character cheat?) but also by explicitly exploring a crisis a faith, in the person of Javier Bardem's downcast priest. This was a kind of film-essay from someone more accustomed to working poetically, and although To The Wonder had more than its share of evocative sounds and images, juxtapositions and almost orchestral camera moves, it was obviously a transitional work or an experiment.

Knight of Cups finds Malick embracing the poetic mode once more. He really does have more in common with experimentalists like Nathaniel Dorsky and Warren Sonbert than he does Spielberg or Coppola -- a formal fact, not a statement of relative worth. This is an important point because, like any poet, Malick can ply his craft badly, and that is precisely what he does here. The best moments of Knight of Cups are explicit callbacks to The Tree of Life -- hovering over grassy fields, swirling around a swingset, seemingly embodying Brakhage's concept of the untutored eye. But everything else?

This is the work of a man with a cosmic eye trying, and failing, to make what appears to be deeply personal art. That's not to say Malick's other films lacked personal or autobiographical commitment (especially Tree of Life), but he was able to forge that dialectic to the supra-individual. Here, Christian Bale's Rick operates like a genuine stand-in for our vision of things, which makes his vacuity a problem in a way that is new and odd. We don't go to Malick films for characterization, just as we don't read The Waste Land for its story.

But there is a sense that we are following Bale's "pilgrim's progress" across the film, even to the point that his / our observations are somehow shifted by dint of being filtered through his consciousness. In other words, we are supposed to care. (Compare Bale's role to that of Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, and how masterfully he and Kubrick create a protagonist who is a husk, a placeholder... a camera.) Forays into Rick's movie business, his family life, even a home-invasion robbery, imply some form of connection that simply isn't there.

In his effort to attend to the immediacy of life, Malick goes in a number of directions, but none of them exactly pan out. He alternates his trademark gliding camera with trembling, handheld work that in this context just seems shoddy. A recurring family melodrama shows Rick stand by while his younger brother (a ghastly Wes Bentley) screams at their broken paterfamilias (Brian Dennehy, doing what he can). Boldest of all, Malick tries to sex up his filmmaking, organizing KoC around a procession of women who have at one time or another occupied Rick's world. They are nominally individuated: Cate Blanchett was too grounded; Natalie Portman was "the other woman," etc. And the less said about the massive party scenes, the better, although they did spur me to recognize a kinship between late Malick and Paolo Sorrentino that up to now had stayed safely in my blind spot.

All of these moments suggest growth, movement, subjectivity, in a film that is not equipped to deliver on those narrative mainstays. But again, even if we accept that traditional plot development is not going to occur in this film, these episodes imply a kind of fiction datum, some emotional touchpoint other than banal disconnection. One would expect that Malick would tie their plight to a broader human design, but he has so cast his lot with the "little people" that when we see those classic contemplative moves -- wandering on the beach, anonymous life in the city running at hyperdrive -- it simply lapses into cliché. (One critic jokingly calls this film Boymanisqaatsi.)

Not every poet is cut out to be a chronicler of small things. What we find in Knight of Cups is that perhaps Malick is struggling to find a language that is more direct, more tied to the here and now, but is butting up against his limitations. What makes this situation bizarre is that, unlike almost any other filmmaker, Malick's "limitations" consist of his own absolute mastery of the medium, a scrim that is making it difficult to strip away the layers and form a different way of representing what it means to be human. But how often does a stone cold master even deign to try something new? Knight of Cups is a failure, but failures don't get much nobler than this.

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