When you look at a beautiful thing, do you ponder its electrons? Have you ever tried to take love apart to see how it works? When you think of the world, do you ache for all the moments of meaning that must go unseen? If so, you are already a Terrence Malick fan, “To the Wonder” was probably a masterpiece, and his latest film, “Knight of Cups” will delight you, as it has many. But if you are anything less than enraptured by these concepts, or if you feel like the ambitious desire to shred a whole life’s worth of memories, images, regrets, hopes, and losses into fine slices, the better to pack them all into a two-hour box, seems quixotic at best, you may be less engaged. Those of us who had hoped that “Knight of Cups” might see Malick changing tack a bit after the progressive steps toward a far-off horizon that were “The Tree of Life” (which, if you’re wondering, I loved) and “To The Wonder” (which I did not) are bound for disappointment, as his new film finds him more abstruse than ever, and more involved with existential questions which are beautiful, vital, universal, and also completely unanswerable.
The fragments build to a loose picture that, if you stand back a few miles, looks like this: Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood writer pursuing a vapid Hollywood lifestyle while simultaneously having an existential crisis. He has a fraught relationship with his father, a pastor (Brian Dennehy), and an emotionally high-register one with his brother (Wes Bentley), seemingly informed by the long-ago suicide of a third brother. And he has his women, a long parade of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood (Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Isabel Lucas, and others) who dance around him successively, doing a better job of separating the film into discernible chapters than the oddly unnecessary headings, which are named for cards of the Tarot — “The High Priestess,” “The Tower,” “Judgment” “Death,” and so on. Formally, it is even more abstract than previous Malick efforts, with on-camera dialogue kept to the barest minimum and the cast instead contributing poetic, banal, or philosophical voiceover to the soundtrack, lines which overlap, fade up, and fade down into music and silence, contributing to the sense of the film as a philosophical fugue state.
Sometimes, however, life breaks through. Blanchett has little screen time (she and Portman, the two Oscar-winning ladies of the chorus, play Rick’s main squeezes), but in her few scenes she is a jolt of realism, an actual woman amid so many muses. The Hollywood scenes are not quite satire, but they are amusing, pointed observations of the falseness of the industry. Then there are the parties — such parties — peppered with eclectic cameos too numerous to mention (except, come on, give Jason Clarke a line, dammit). There are strip clubs and hotel suites and open-top cars filled with Japanese girls and film deals struck on back lots. There are deserts, the Aurora Borealis, streetlights through tree branches, high-speed nighttime LA traffic, and, most unexpectedly and ecstatically, underwater swimming dogs dressed in Hawaiian shirts chasing tennis balls.
So yes, you might have gathered, DP Emmanuel Lubezki makes his presence felt in every frame. Especially interesting is the disconnect between flashy moments of shallow excess, like the snappy, punkish strobe-edited sequence of a high fashion shoot, when placed in the context of the largely classical soundtrack — Elgar and Grieg feature — and of winsome, whispery voiceover. In moments like these it feels like Malick is doing something new, in amongst so much that is very familiar.
There will be arguments about “Knight of Cups” similar to those there were over “To The Wonder,” and probably even more pointless. Because in this brimful film, provided you haven’t rejected it outright as overly pretentious and self-indulgent, you can find an image, or a line of voiceover to suit any thesis you care to make. In fact, a kind of referential mania overcomes you when you try to figure out the symbolism of clear water vs cloudy water, open doors and closed doors, mother and father, pilgrim and pearl. But there is no decoder ring provided, no single key to unlocking any single meaning. In fact, the Tarot reference may be more appropriate than we know, and “Knight of Cups”may be designed to be a deck of cards from which everyone makes their own hand. For me, I took this line from the palimpsestic voiceover, “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start making sense, but that’s what damnation is, all these pieces of your life just splashed about.”
Perhaps Malick, at 71, is looking at his life and is somewhat aghast to discover that he can find no pattern, no real shape, just pieces splashed about, and maybe “Knight of Cups” is him trying to gather up in his arms as many of those pieces as he can, to save them from oblivion. But is that really anything as dramatic as damnation, or is that, as the film was for me, just limbo: neither here nor there, neither great nor terrible, just an eternal dance of recollections in which nothing is answered, nothing concludes, and no one grows anything but older and more aware of the impossibility of holding on to all the fragments of time they rented throughout their lives. [B]