“How do I begin?”
Knight of Cups, the latest movie from writer/director Terrence Malick, follows Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) as he tries to understand what his life is now that his brother has died and his career is on the precipice of a momentous piece of work. True to Malickian form, none of this is spelled out, and the above quote does not come from a piece of dialogue snatched from a conversation, but from Rick’s inner thoughts. Or from a prayer. Or maybe just a simple voiceover. There is no real way of telling, but that doesn’t matter. Nothing in a Malick movie is concrete, and everything can be interpreted multiple ways. How does one watch a Terrence Malick movie? With the same advice that Nabokov offered his readers, “Don’t pay as much attention to the story, as to the way in which it is told.”
Knight of Cups is a movie as fluid as running water, and much like Heraclitus’s proclamation that you can’t step in the same river twice, no Malick movie plays the same the second time around. Here — much like previous works To the Wonder (2013) and The Tree of Life (2011) — Malick drops in on his characters in the middle of a crisis, be it existential, personal or spiritual. These are not tidy crises that can be solved by a simple trip home or a return to center. No, these are long, messy, drawn-out affairs and Malick captures them in all their gloriously wrought length.
Though Rick inhabits the center of this particular story, Malick refuses to center solely on him, broadening the canvas by incorporating crises from his brother (Wes Bentley — sadly miscast) and father (Brian Dennehy — perfectly cast) as they deal with the death in the family, but in a much more volatile manner than Rick.
Malick too lost a brother. At one time, he too was a hotshot screenwriter. Does that make Knight of Cups Malick’s autobiography? In some ways yes, but like Tree of Life, Malick uses his personal experience as a jumping off point for something greater.
And that something greater is achieved by incorporating others works of a similar vein, particularly John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Gospel of Thomas. But if there is a skeleton key to Knight of Cups, Malick offers it in the form of a tarot deck, with each chapter notated by a different card from the deck. Even the movie’s title and promotional posters are clues. If dealt right side up, the Knight of Cups is one who brings romance, opportunity and artistic ideas. If dealt upside down, then the Knight brings recklessness, fraud and an inability to differentiate truth from fiction.
Hopscotching from woman-to-woman, lie-to-lie, party-to-party, never quite grasping what he is searching for, Rick is upside down and this knight is locked in the hedonistic fantasy of Hollywood. He has fallen and as he moves through the City of Angels he encounters similarly fallen seraphim. Some with wings tattooed on their backs; another (Imogen Poots) has tears in her jacket where her wings should be. All are fallen from grace.
The want and desire to return to that grace is at the heart of Malick’s work, and he finds through Emmanuel Lubezki’s swirling and poetic imagery. Knight of Cups is their fourth collaboration, and here Lubezki manages to do something very few can: capture the beauty and breadth of Los Angeles. Lubezki manages this feat by finding no division between LA’s architecture and sprawling infrastructure, it’s diverse and violent natural surroundings and the false fronts of a studio backlot. All are synonymous. All are magnificent.
Knight of Cups is vast. Not everything fits, but that is of little concern. Knight of Cups is personal, messy and complex. It is a profound work of art that charges the audience sitting in the dark to do the same of the protagonist. To turn the problem over. To think. To act. To do better.