Published Mar 17, 2016Knight of Cups, the new film by Terrence Malick, is the director's most elusive and mercurial work to date, pushing his increasingly abstract form (developed in 2013's To The Wonder) towards the bleeding edge of cinema.
At this point in his career, Malick has long abandoned any notion of character or conventional storytelling from his earlier films, instead making inspired fever dreams about philosophy and ideas: love, sex, freedom, loss and family are his scattershot targets, loosely tied together as we travel backwards and forwards through time as dictated by his subject's thoughts.
If the current field of American indie cinema is indebted to Malick's 1970s output, seen in directors like David Gordon Green, Andrew Dominik and David Lowery, this new, more productive Malick 2.0 appears to be more inspired by post-'68 Godard, although with decidedly fewer political aims. Knight of Cups works more like an essay, a cine-prayer of montage about material wealth and the true definition of freedom, an ambitious vision that continues to prove Malick is one of our most exciting filmmakers.
The film loosely follows the structure of a tarot card reading, a backroom attraction that grounds Malick back in his usual curiosities of artifice, Americana and the allure of L.A. mysticism — a welcome return after his dry and fragile European trek into full-hearted spirituality with To The Wonder. Divided into chapters such as "The Hangman," "The Hermit" and "The High Priestess," Knight of Cups, a two-hour film that could have easily gone longer, barely has the time to say everything on its mind (though this film will certainly test the patience of all but the most willing viewers).
Through eight segments, we follow Rick, played by Christian Bale, a screenwriter dealing with a complicated existential crisis of meaning and consequence. Bale is all but silent, wandering through Hollywood while reflecting on past loves. He's joined by an ensemble cast including Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots and Freida Pinto, all playing spectres and fragments of failed relationships, presented by Malick without judgement but with an eye for human nature.
This is American cinema at its most impressionistic and experimental, but just so happens to star a number of Oscar winners, all clamouring to work with one of the great directors of the day. The supporting cast is Malick's deepest ensemble to date, lending to the film's collage-y feel, and many of the supporting players have only a handful of lines, mostly whispered off-screen; Bale is joined by Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy and an assortment of comedians in cameo appearances, as he drifts from party to party, looking for meaning.
Perhaps then, it's fitting that Knight of Cups works as a satire of modern-day Hollywood debauchery, a bitter laugh with a vignette structure that feels of a part with last month's Hail, Caesar!, or, given the film's endless cacophony of voice-overs and fleeting moments captured in editing, Spring Breakers.
This is a new look for Malick, and he expands on his multi-format cinematography from To The Wonder in a big way, using GoPros, early commercial low-grade digital cameras and still photography to dazzling effect. DP Emmanuel Lubezki provides truly stunning work here, pushing past his career-best turn in The Tree of Life by focusing on moments both fleeting and eternal, moments in our lives that are impossible to convey using language.
Malick seems to understand this, as his cinema becomes increasingly difficult to put into words. He's a filmmaker at the height of his powers, making dazzling experimental films. Knight of Cups comes highly recommended.