Knight of Cups (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16May/160

Knight of Cups (2016)

Rick wanders Los Angeles, searching for meaning in decadence and art.  Terrence Malick writes and directs Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale.

Not for touchingTo the Wonder put me at a breaking point with Terrence Malick.  His trademark dreamy visuals centered on yet another collection of billowing wheat and shifting clouds which read almost as parody.  So when I heard the advance buzz around Knight of Cups, where even sympathetic critics were having a hard time connecting with it, I prepared myself for another ponderous if beautifully shot round of navel-gazing.

My reaction coming out of Knight of Cups was positive, but it wasn't born from the diminished expectations his previous films and fellow critics generated in me.  I was instead struck by how Malick so wonderfully communicated a painful truth about life and art.  It hurts to care, and a sense of detachment is necessary to live the life of someone who goes around trying to both empathize and make better the lives of those who suffer.  Focusing on this detachment, by presenting Christian Bale as a sort of heavenly knight of the streets who wanders from one part of the city to the next, Malick creates a hymn to the isolation of modern existence.

This, maybe, is why I didn't react as strongly to The Tree of Life and was hostile toward To the Wonder.  From Badlands to To the Wonder we have spent so much time in nature with Malick that it seemed he could toss something like To the Wonder together with a spare few weeks.  Knight of Cups was made much like his other films, where the performers have little idea of what their characters are like and he keeps the sparse dialogue close to his chest.  But there is little of the nature we commonly think of, not as much plant life and ponderous cloud shots, and more modern art installations with Bale's impassive face leading us from one section to the next.

By further indulging in experimental tics which turned me off to Malick's recent work, he reaches the peak of what experimental film is capable of.

By going deeper into experimental tics which turned me off to Malick's recent work, he hits a soaring note.

Bale turns out to be a magnificent choice to anchor Knight of Cups.  I've never seen him as a subtle performer, and given the radical physical transformations he's undergone for much of his work it seems lack of subtlety is part of his process.  But the Bale of Knight of Cups is no less radical a transformation because all that outward energy has to be directed inward.  He has almost no lines spoken onscreen, instead having to communicate his performance so intently on his breathing and gaze that he attains a purity of impermanence.  The performers around Bale use him as a sounding board to echo back their fears and rare delights, like this is the one time they may be honest with themselves and it is with someone who can feel but can't reciprocate.

In this way, Malick turns Knight of Cups into his version of Wings of Desire with Bale in the Bruno Ganz role.  They both feature seemingly impassive observers who long to be part of the human world but are trapped in their angelic frames.  The most direct connections are from Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography, showing Bale seeking out beauty and art in corners of Los Angeles, and the dialogue, which frequently circles back to the story of a prince who was sent to obtain a pearl.  Rick (Bale), like the prince, is lost in earthly "perfection" where he is seen as a genius when it is his imperfections discussed by the souls he encounters which bring him back to peace.

The idea of embracing the imperfect as the way to grace is distinctly Christian, and is beautifully realized in quiet moments of observation.  Malick focuses more on those who suffer, and the ways we might begin to heal.  This isn't overtly shown as Rick wanders around decadent parties.  But with a turn of the camera we see Rick kneeling to comfort a homeless person, or hear the sounds of an unfamiliar language followed by laughter and a shot of dominoes being shuffled, and - in a touch I'm certain Krzysztof Kieślowski would approve of - in shots of the elderly living in Los Angeles.

Lubezki's photography is

Lubezki's cinematography grounds Rick in cool tones when he is having a shared experience, creating a connection to offset the seemingly distant world of modern art.

I was not prepared to cry at so many of these moments.  Malick disarmed my expectations so thoroughly by having one of his first scenes be a stuttering image of women painted in black with false eyes.  But he found the beauty in the corners of these art installations and parties, where the art sometimes seems distant through a digital lens, and quietly connecting the resilience of the imperfect to the message this new kind of art is communicating.  Imperfect art touches imperfect people in a perfect way, and through Bale's passive performance the flood of emotion from one to another creates a sometimes unbearable conduit of pure feeling.

This came to a head when we see Nancy (Cate Blanchett), Rick's ex-wife, working with her patients.  One of the things which frustrated me in To the Wonder was how even the empathetic characters were kept at a distance.  Knight of Cups, itself a weird form of experimental art, brought me to sobs when Nancy touched one patient and he smiled so heavenly.  The disconnect we sometimes feel for art, especially in these times where technology isolates us physically, may be lost on most but, as Malick shows, those in the corner and those who need it will reflect that indescribable connection in love for one another.

When I understood this, everything about Knight of Cups clicked into place.  Malick created a beautiful thesis statement, that even if his art may seem too abstract or intentionally distant at times, to look in the corners and find grace.  To show this all the time would be too painful, as briefly glimpsed through Rick's family.  But if you glide through your circumstances, mold your role a you can, and not allow ourselves to become mired in the pain of the past - then we might know peace.

Tail - Knight of CupsKnight of Cups (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring Christian Bale.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.


Leave Your Thoughts!

Trackbacks are disabled.