Overview: A screenwriter searches for himself and connections in Los Angeles. Broad Green Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 118 minutes.
The Magician: Perhaps director Terrence Malick’s most abstract and unforgiving work, the enigma of the narrative of Knight of Cups is nearly impenetrable, but the general gist of it and the emotions that come with are easily known. Just as Bale’s screenwriter Rick, who finds himself torn in a downward spiral of success and solitude is reminded of the Hymns of the Pearl in an early scene, about a son of kings made to forget both lineage and quest, so are we, sidelined by the excess and temptation of Tinsel Town.
The finale to an unofficial autobiographical trilogy in which The Tree of Life captures his youth in Texas and To The Wonder highlights initial romances, Knight of Cups’ depiction of an unfulfilling foray into Hollywood feels authentic. Perhaps this is why the film feels so personal, resonating with an intimacy that demands to be felt, even if the film’s focus is ultimately on that of detachment.
The Wheel of Fortune: Each new chapter of the film (and of Rick’s life) is introduced with a tarot card, introducing another wayward theme, another muse, and another disintegrated relationship. Vaguely linked, the film moves with a fluidity. Loves who seem so important in the present vanish, never to be seen again, replaced easily. Memories are merged and seamless. It is repetitive occasionally, both to itself and to Malick’s previous works, but not without meaning.
The Chariot: With a heavy focus on certain aspects of appearance – hands and lips and bodies – and ignorance of others – the eyes and face and even hair (wigs, makeup, and sunglasses), Malick creates a soulless entity within the industry. The supermodel figures and celebrity appeals are tempting, but nearly devoid of fulfillment. Initially, it feels like much is missing from the finish product, until it becomes clear: in a meta-realization of celebrity, Malick purposely underutilizes his ensemble, resulting in a totally believable and subversive manipulation of the fame of the actors, who are given their own names to play versions of themselves. And as he offers brief glimpses into their conversations and unexplained instances of indulgence, he further exposes a sense of self-centeredness.
The visuals nearly overpower the language in the film, and certainly obviate any narrative. On a technical scale, the switch between standard photography (though can Emmanuel Lubezki ever be considered “standard”?) and GoPro footage works as an added level of immersion only found within those highs, and as an accentuation of the adventure that seemingly makes itself readily available with success. With a contrast between beauty and unpleasantness, Lubezki’s cinematography elicits a provocative day dream that separates the poor and the wealthy. Real life, the more under-represented streets of Los Angeles are made drab and unappealing; the romances, the wealth, the fame are glorified and shot vividly. Occasionally the two worlds collide: a robbery interrupts a mournful walk on the beach, or an ex-wife, played gracefully by Cate Blanchett, nurses the disabled despite her ineffable beauty.
The Sun: Though the mysticism occasionally grows weary and the film demands repeat viewings for complete understanding, the images and the marriage of said images with nearly every other aspect of film – sound, dialogue, voiceover – keep it a powerful and moving tone poem. Rampant with mostly ambiguous symbolism as a whole, the film feeds off of unique experiences rather than its own plot. The result is beautiful; a delicate dissemination that seems to transcend a single topic – one which finds itself possibly revealing more than it sets out to, unique and accessible for each viewer.
Overall: Knight of Cups is divine, exalted work. Malick is more orchestrating than directing; he has taken varieties of indescribable emotion, and successfully made them felt for all varieties of viewers.