Knight of Cups is another one of Terrence Malick’s cinematic reveries
In his last few films, Terrence Malick has come close to fulfilling the whole potential of cinema as the sum of all previously existing art forms. His films are carried by music, and indeed they flow along with it. The camera waltzes through space, images flash by as though notes in a symphony. Editing is Malick’s paintbrush—over the years, the American director has collected a massive repertoire of cinematic visions, and he has worked patiently to assemble them into feature-length works of modern impressionism.
The theme of Knight of Cups is set in its opening lines, which tell the story of a young prince who is sent by his father to look for a pearl, but loses his way and drinks himself into a deep sleep. Rick (Christian Bale) is, in a sense, this prince—a Los Angeles screenwriter who wanders through the city and various love relationships like a lost soul, always searching, always trying to understand what he’s after. He rarely speaks, and the conversations of others are usually muted or half-heard. The lines that matter are read as voice-over—everything else is dust, to be washed away by time.
Unlike To the Wonder, Malick’s previous film, which was distinct for its apparent attempt to reconstruct memories, Knight of Cups is more clearly set in the present. Shot partially on GoPro cameras, it is more intrusive, sometimes close to 3-D in in the way it invites you into its image, while maintaining the dreamlike tone of its predecessor. Despite its hopeful finale, it is drenched in a sense of loss, as if it had lived through millions of years and gone all the way back to craft this diary of days forgotten.
You cannot watch Knight of Cups as you watch all other films—you will have to surrender yourself to it. Cinema is usually expected, if not required, to entertain, but why must that be the case? You wouldn’t sit down in an art gallery and complain about it having no plot. You wouldn’t complain about a symphony’s lack of discernible purpose. But if a film is made without a script, then there will always be someone to label it as empty.
Complaining that a Malick film has no plot is like saying the Mona Lisa could use some lipstick. Malick stopped using scripts because he had no purpose for them anymore. He relinquished himself from the constraints of storytelling, achieving a liberating sense of freedom and grace through cinematic movement. To see his films is to experience the world anew. Someday they might be studied to understand what it must have meant, beyond all political, social or even openly artistic implications, to simply be alive in our day and age.
There is no doubt that Malick has alienated many viewers with his approach. Some say his films are not made for everyone, but I truly believe that they are—it just turns out not everyone is made for them. There couldn’t have been more than 10 people at the screening I attended, and there was still one who walked out. There will always be some to walk out, in any group. In some groups, it might be the whole group. That’s fine. Knight of Cups, as all Malick films, exists outside of time. It has conquered time and put it in a bottle. It will never get old. It can afford to wait.
Release date: March 18, 2016
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman