Knight of Cups ★★★★½

So simple, and yet it almost totally eluded me on last viewing: Malick's main musical motifs here - Grieg's "Ases dod," Kilar's "Exodus," Part's "Silouan's Song" and Vaughn Williams' "Fantasia" - all naturally build to ecstatic resolutions through repetition and release; undulating waves of emotion that emerge not so much as a climaxes but as walls of sheer catharsis. Encountering each of these pieces in the context of a late Malick work invites eager anticipation - who couldn't after the coup de graces of Wagner in The New World, or Gorecki in To The Wonder? And yet: it is precisely this desire for consolation that Knight of Cups posits and then frustrates with dogmatic clarity. Not one of these pieces reaches their resolution in the film. No strains of the absolutely piercing climax of Silouans' Song will be heard over images of heart-rending grief, but the searching preamble will appear and reappear to set the scene. And make no mistake, there is more of a dogma at work here than in any other Malick; not since the 70's has his work felt more contained or absolutely certain of its purpose right from the word go, certainly thematically and in many ways formally. For the first time in ages, the conceits aren't animated by a question or even by a forgone conclusion exploding wildly in different directions before resolving. What this container, uh, contains is an entire symphony of searching, one that rests somewhere between intuition and mathematics. Emboldened by his boundaries, Malick dives inwards and reveals a sort of z-axis to familiar emotional terrain; it's the same fragments about broken marriages, authoritarian fathers, urban/nature ennui but approached without any veneer of drama or theatricality, or pretense to realism or even any concern for what is and isn't abstract. Music was the last barrier, but Malick doesn't reject it or reserve it in Bressonian fashion. In fact, it's astonishing how much of this film is wall-to-wall music and how much of it, especially the classical works, feels like texture. It's a sublimation of feeling but not a campaign against it; rather music has finally found its balanced place in the Malick toolbox.

With this achieved, music joins narration and imagery to form a trinitarian superstructure in lieu of an actual story; though plenty "happens" here, it unfolds in a manner that is symphonic rather than narrative. The four pieces mentioned are all tied to specific movements of grief, searching, and failure, and these movements constantly rotate between each other, gaining new resonance with each iteration. Individual images are flush with consonant colour and spatial ideas and tend to run in shot/edit motifs of threes; this mini-trinity becomes the atomic base of the whole edifice - a trinity of trinities, an unbroken web of harmonies cascading over each other at an almost subliminal level. This near mathematical obsession with the grand edifice of Rick's conversion is Malick's great achievement here - a rigorous stripping of the distractions - we could even say passions - that have dominated his late work, allowing an almost Thomistic or zen-like objectivity to permeate this extremely, ridiculously subjective work. It's methodical, hierarchical, musical; it's the closest thing to a great Bach or Buxtehude prelude realized in film grammar, and it's closer to Dante than it is to Bunyan.

Too many of Malick's critics confuse a bland all-purpose "innovation" for artistic progress, as though directors who do not obviously deconstruct or abstract their entire process every few years are doomed to stagnation. Ditto the claim that Malick's continuous return to the subject of families, children, and redemption is somehow "safe" and not worthy of a film as radically interrogative as this - what could be more vital than these very themes, the bedrock of human relations? Knight of Cups is a much needed tonic against these modern technocratic assumptions, as it affirms Malick's process as one of innovation of the heart, a purification of sight and of purpose. It's purgation - it's perpetual conversion. This is the only innovation that matters.

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