There is something glorious about Terrence Malick’s audacious approach to the filmmaking craft that deserves admiration. The reclusive director’s disregard for mass-appeal, clarity, and conventional thematic and structural parameters, enables him to ambitiously reach for transcendent imagery, even when his brand of existentialism is perceived by many as undecipherable, self-absorbed, and unbearable to watch in spite of its undeniable aesthetic qualities.
Somewhere in between his widely acclaimed “The Thing Red Line” and his period piece “The New World” Malick’s interest for traditional storytelling diluted and morphed into a new language caught on the trenches between spirituality and earthly preoccupations. He now writes strikingly ethereal visual poems for the Gods, with lauded cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki as his scribe, in hopes that through cinema he can tap into the mysteries of the beyond. He is a preacher unconcerned with those who may or may not decide to listen, yet gracious enough to share his metaphysical visions of human life with the world for whoever wants to join on the spellbinding ride.
Fragmented into chapters alluding to Tarot cards, and the random destinies they are designed to predict, “Knight of Cups” is a solemn meditation on the intricacies of what it means to feel lost, or so it seems, which uses Los Angeles as its canvas. From the bleakness of Skid Row to the isolated exclusivity of the mansions on the hills, deprivation and depravity exist in a dangerous choreography in a city where most things are deceiving. In the visible realm Rick (Christian Bale) is a writer, a womanizer, and a hedonistic vagabond, is the evocative voiceover that informs us of his metaphorical character, the son of king, a knight who drank from a cup and forgot his mission of finding a pearl in the depths of the ocean.
Lost in the mundane sequence of events that construct his existence, he has left behind his divinity and given into the empty pleasures of the flesh. Although avoiding clear-cut exposition, Malick dives into the profound sense of emptiness experienced by his protagonist by granting us glimpses at the pieces that assemble his consciousness, fears, and needs. Whether is in the hollow halls of a luminous building or the artificiality of a studio lot, Rick encounters lovers, acquaintances, complete strangers, or perhaps ghosts that whisper grudges and pleads that force him to question the life he’s been pretending to live. It’s all murky in its mechanics, but fascinatingly compelling in the emotions it beautifully elicits from the sweeping frames.
For a director with such idiosyncratic modus operandi, Malick is not one for casting unknown actors; instead he centers his attention on Hollywood’s biggest names and then exposes them to his untamable methods. Antonio Banderas, who compares his promiscuity to the natural desire for variety in a voiceover speech, Cate Blanchett, as one of Rick’s devastated romantic flings, Natalie Portman, playing an unfaithful wife destroyed by passion, Freida Pinto, as an alluring dancer, and Wes Bentley, the fiercely unstable brother, populate “Knight of Cups” as a parade of entities tormenting Bale. Actors who willingly run the risk of never appearing on screen if Malick sees that fit, but take their chances wishing to be part of his magic.
Blessed with Lubezki’s unparalleled ability to capture every minuscule moment with as if they were the most ravishing revelations, and shaped by four tireless editors, in what is sure to be a laborious affair, Malick’s latest has the power to leave one utterly breathless. It carries over the ridiculous gorgeousness of “To the Wonder,” but is closer to “The Tree of Life” in the way it conveys its complex philosophical observations.
A recurring motif that satisfyingly pays off at the end of the film is the appearance of bodies surrounded by water floating freely in a weightless state that resembles the purity that defines us all before birth. Everything is sacred in the universe seen through Malick’s eyes, and yet it all feels as if it belongs to a larger otherworldly equation in which each part is simultaneously as insignificant and grand as the next. Only Bale feels slightly more substantial than the pieces that float around him because he glides through them almost effortlessly, but there is never a moment that can be singled out as the highlight of his performance. That’s not to say his talents are misused, it’s just that is in that perpetual blankness that Malick relies to convey his obsession at hand.
To become that knight born from the light once again Rick needs to be open to rebirth, Malick offers that very opportunity to those who witness his perplexing cinematic miracles. Like all transforming occurrences they don’t always make sense intellectually but answer yearnings that lie beneath.