Like most of the great experiential directors, Terrence Malick has dedicated his career to the embodying of feeling and internal emotion in external perception, rather than – as is the wont of most self-conscious, overweening youthful filmmakers – embedding meaning in hidden artifacts to be glimpsed only by those who know how to look. Malick understands the beauty of the external world as a manifestation of the internal, relying on the gliding fantasia of his always-discovering camera to define humanity, and cruxing emotional growth in the sublimity of his god-glimpsing light and shade dynamics.
But too often in his latest feature Knight of Cups he finds himself caught up in the imbroglio of leaden metaphor and creaking meaning – forgetting the cardinal rule that cinema should be about how meaning is felt, perceived, experienced, rather than simply what meaning can be siphoned out in the end. For this reason, this 2016 offering – Malick’s weakest production yet – isn’t imbued with the experiential purity of Malick’s previous efforts (excepting To The Wonder). But it’s still Terrence Malick, he’s still searching, and with Emmanuel Lubezki as his fellow traveler to light his path, Knight of Cups finds more than a handful of rocks to overturn along an admittedly self-sabotaging journey.
Malick’s films – and, make no mistake, Knight of Cups is a Malick film despite a setting more akin to a Lynchian psychodrama – have always been a bold concoction of hubris and humility, of fanatical technical gestures belying a self-awareness. For whatever Malick’s film can divine, they presume that more always exists within, and just outside, the frame. Knight of Cups, bless its heart, doesn’t quite nail the balance. It occasionally tips in favor of declamatory statements about modernity and hedonism that don’t suit Malick’s impressionist milieu at all. But the film’s redefinition and reorientation of that milieu as a reflection of modernity as an incorporeal experience striving for tangibility is worth the price of admission alone.
Stunted and starstruck, Knight of Cups is a change of locale for Malick, but hardly a change of pace. It’s still the same dynamically calibrated, iridescently bent excavation of sensory beauty as refreshment and even jump-start for the stultified human mind. Thus, Malick’s not-a-screenplay and Lubezki’s hyperbolic camera freely, even hedonistically imbibe in the carnal pleasures offered by the film – architectural beauty, the sculpted female form, cathartic sensory juggling acts of lived-experience blasting the brain. These external temptations enliven the film, jutting into the overdetermined harangue of the introductory jeremiad about sin, much as they counterbalance protagonist Rick’s (Christian Bale) soulless ennui of the lost-screenwriter school. There’s a lot of “longing” and “questing” in the film’s narration, but Malick’s film primarily reminds us that what we beckon for is right in front of us, if only we could see it.
Inevitable comparisons to the director’s twenty-year sabbatical as a mercenary screenwriter abound, Malick having expended years in a festering, toxic concoction of cosmopolitanism and corrosive combustion essayed in Knight of Cups like a far-flung future from the middle-America he was himself brewed in. This vision of LA is an alien world, with Lubezki’s camera poetically advancing its Birdman-pas-de-deux but wisely stripping out the psychology to envision a camera as an unknowable mind, a consciousness, floating, howling around the city itself. This is an impulse-driven, un-enervated, possibly psychotropic world of hysteria and inconstancy, the camera constantly reframing itself and suggesting movement that occurs less for a predetermined purpose than simply to wander. Much like Rick, the film always seems to be prowling for something – not meaning, but experience, sense, a shot of life.
Thus, if the film’s reductionist attitude toward women – always objects, never subjects – is grim and troubling, it’s also of a kind with Malick’s forsaken attitude toward human character altogether. It’s the duality of Malick’s cinema that an unblinking internality is also fundamentally externalized in a frame that has little concern for psychology; when the film itself is an elliptical mind, the human minds within are but cryptic spaces intertwined in the cosmos. It’s no secret that the Malick of 2016 appreciates the human body more for its architecture than its internal yearning, but the feminine form is, if reductively physical here, also spastically sparkling with a radiant surface-level energy that Malick reacts to without the lecherous-ponderous air assumed by the sin-baiting arch-themes of the piece. Life is tactile, graspable in Malick’s film as well as esoteric and conceptual, and where his aesthetic thrives is in expressing its fallibility in knowing whether the sensual pleasures in front of us distort intellectual validation, or if those very physical euphorias themselves are the jubilation, the rapture of life, and all other idea-based notions of existence are pointless drivel.
Which is to say, if this LA is a hothouse of sensory intoxicants, Malick resists crypto-conservative affirmations of the inside at the expense of the tangible world. The women are not vixens or harpies enervating Rick from his inner-productivity, nor are they objects for his betterment; instead, they’re flickering pulses of life akin to the sculpted realm only because all human flesh is fundamentally geometric in Malick’s vision. Not that this excuses Malick from his emphasis and validation of the female form over the male form, mind you, but the caliber of Knight of Cups is primarily to ask us to think about “form” in the first place. For all his vexing internal excavation, Malick also dares us to find beauty in the outside, in the also-ran regions our eyes naggingly miss while bustling through life.
So, it goes without saying that those subscribing to Syd Field’s screenwriting manual would have a field day lambasting and chastizing the film for its willful recalcitrance to narrative cohesion or order. Yet Malick’s aura is not only antithetical to convention but actively flaunting its disobedience in regard to written-word propriety. It’s no coincidence that the film is about a flailing screenwriter whose work eludes him; the camera and the tempestuous, cadenced, improvisational abomination that is the film frequently elude us, liquifying our expectations and recasting them through the prism of a camera that can’t be bothered to stop and start when a script tells it to.
Thus is the beauty of Malick’s vision, the driving impetus of his masterpiece The Tree of Life. Accusations of pomposity and pretension albatross Malick’s neck to this day, but pretension seems more akin to the work of a Christopher Nolan in the modern world, a director whose films dot every I and cross every T in inveterate airtight precision and ruthless objectivity of mental position. In comparison, Malick’s cinema – when it isn’t divulging a series of regurgitated pseudo-wisdom nuggets leaden with too-pat meaning – is confident enough to wander the Earth with the humility of someone that doesn’t have an answer for us. It’s rebelliousness is not simply technical, but conscientious. Flaws aside, Knight of Cups begs us to forgo sycophantic commitment to presumptions of order and logical meaning, a shakeup it pursues via a form that is not only unchained to move around but uninhibited by servility to the rules of any book you could find on “how to make movies”.