Knight of Cups (2015)

Directed by Terrence Malick

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A Hollywood screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale) wanders the world in search of something, like a ghost.  His fragmented odyssey is similar to other Malick dreams, in which characters explore their environment alongside orchestral music, breathy voiceover and very wide angle lenses.  His films are dreamy, and over time they have become increasingly detached from plot or any observable narrative.

Rick will bounce around from party to party, experiencing all excess Hollywood has to offer, as well as spending time with his aggrieved bother and father and a few different lovers.  Their stories are cut up and spliced together, occasionally separated by title cards.  For the most part this is one long piece, with no discernible boundaries, like the dream of a dying man recalling his own past.

This is a very Malick-ian film, but what I find most interesting about his works, similar as they may be, is who is doing the dreaming.  In Badlands and Days of Heaven his heroes were young outlaws or young travelers, headed somewhere even if they didn’t yet know where to.

Then in perhaps his most notable recent film, Tree of Life, half of his story revolves around a child taking in the world, seeing it for the first time, and the other half follows that boy as a wilted older man (Sean Penn), dealing more or less with depression.

In Knight of Cups Rick is in line with that Sean Penn character.  He’s too old to see the world like a child, and he’s unburdened by the same mission as the characters in Malick’s first two films.  He wanders because he’s lost.

The film then captures a majesty about the world, even if just aesthetically, that Rick misses.  Maybe we’re inclined to think he’s become one with the universe or something along those lines, but he instead feels miles away from the people closest to him.  He experiences this all with a bit of the same objective quality as we do, dropping in on moments with little context and thus unable to regard it with the same casual melodrama or petty irritation as we might regard various mundane things in our own life, but he doesn’t seem to find the moment all that interesting.

Instead he just wanders like a ghost.  He looks like one too, his face a bit gaunt, harkening back to characters Bale has played before in films like The Machinist and Rescue Dawn.

Rick is a man out of step with reality, and I suppose this film suggests that you have to be a bit out of sync with reality in order to see it in the way Malick so clearly wants to see it. His own way of capturing the world onscreen is so consistent, so unique.  It may feel tired and ripe for parody at this point in time, but his films never waver.  You can recognize a Terrence Malick film immediately.

There is no real narrative here, there wasn’t even a script.  The actors improvised and played around, like kids on a playground.  Sometimes that does produce a compelling surprise moment or demonstrate a certain joie de vivre, but other times it feels too much like you’re dropping in on the warm up exercises in a beginner’s improv class.

In To the Wonder, for example, I felt some of this playfulness didn’t work, especially as you see a 30-something couple, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, literally frolicking in a pile of autumn leaves.

This unselfconscious level of ‘play’ works best when the subject is a child.  This way of seeing and feeling out the world feels inherent to someone of a certain age.  It’s when his characters are much older that it feels a little odd.

But for most of Knight of Cups Rick just wanders, kind of stiffly.  He is there to experience the world around him rather than to bubble over with a childlike energy.  He is haunted, hollow and maybe even a little translucent.  In line with the themes of the film and its fragmented nature, Rick never quite feels within reach.  He’s a shadow of himself, and if he learns something along the way, well I can’t remember.

The narrative logic of this film escapes me.  Such is the nature of dreams.

Up Next: Joe (2013), The Wicker Man (1973), Undertow (2004)

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