Written and directed by Terrence Malick | 118 min | ▲▲▲▲△
I really tend to resist this kind of observation when writing about the movies, but with the new films from legendary director Terrence Malick, I have to say it: I think in a certain mood, they’re hypnotic, beautiful, and moving. In other moods, your mileage may vary.
When I saw his last picture, To The Wonder, back in 2013, I was impressed with the ways the filmmaker was loosening his grip on mainstream narrative, something that really started with Tree of Life. Instead of scenes, he creates moments. Instead of dialogue, he utilizes voice overs. I described it as poetic.
This week I rewatched that film at home, and found myself losing patience with its lack of plot. Wrong mood, I suppose. Another strong possibility is Malick’s work absolutely requires the focus provided by the big screen.
This afternoon, Knight Of Cups made for compelling cinema.
If anything, its narrative felt even more fragmented than To The Wonder, the poetic way with image and editing now infusing the story itself. I would hesitate to even call it a tale, more a collection of episodes illustrating a Hollywood denizen’s restless life of leisure and love affairs with a series of women, starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, and the excellent Brian Dennehy, who we see too infrequently. Also good to see Michael Wincott, Clifton Collins Jr, and Antonio Banderas in brief appearances.
Malick and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki extend his restless camera to follow actors in and around sunlit rooms, spare modern spaces, and into water. Malick has always been fascinated by wildlife, flora and fauna, but especially water. There are so many scenes of performers running, playing, and swimming, the film often feels like a document of modern dance than an inside look at the dream factory, more akin to Pina Bausch than Robert Altman.
What story there is comes smudged, impressionistic. Rick (Bale) is incorrigible, a pleasure-seeker with endless resources, distant to those who love him, unable to commit. The film opens with a story of a king who sent his son into Egypt to find a rare pearl, but the son forgets who he is, and falls asleep. Rick sleepwalking through his life is writ large in the film itself—a dreamlike collection of scenes with glossy Los Angeles and Las Vegas as a backdrop, parties, pools, and people. Characters wander in for a few minutes, their voice-overs commenting on Rick’s life and their own philosophies, desires, despairs. Then they vanish, replaced by others.
I can fully understand those who have no patience for this sort of thing—the endless camera shots looking up at the actors, from their waists, or over their shoulders, the visual non-sequiturs, the lack of diegetic dialogue.
But I walked out of the theatre in a kind of trance, where everything around me moved in slow motion. It didn’t last long, but while under the film’s spell it felt like the world was infused with its beauty.