‘It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.’
This quote from the writer Raymond Carver seems very apt when we approach the work of Terrence Malick. Malick has a way of drawing attention to somewhat ordinary things, fragments of everyday life, and making them seem wondrous. After watching his latest film, my path home through London took on a different feeling; the tiled skyscrapers appeared majestic and untouchable, the empty tube and escalators eerie and mysterious. Even with a lesser work as Knight of Cups, Malick has the ability to make the audience see the world in a different way.
Christian Bale plays Rick, the jaded Hollywood screenwriter at the heart of the film, a stoic, passive observer of the insanity around him. His world is full of lavish, hedonistic parties at picturebook mansions and an endless stream of wild beauties. People seem to flow in and out of his life like ocean waves; his tyrannical father (Brian Dennehy), his errant brother (Wes Bentley) and saintly ex-wife (Cate Blanchett). There is a portentous voiceover by Ben Kingsley, reciting The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, detailing a man’s descent into hell and ultimate salvation.
Continuing on from the improvisation of To the Wonder, Malick has appeared to strip away all forms of conventional storytelling, relying on sound and image to conjure a mood. Rick is near mute throughout the film, with snippets of breathless narration the only illumination of his character. It is somewhat sad how the last two films in Malick’s oeuvre have progressed. He was once noted for his ability to illicit strong, memorable performances from his actors, yet now he seems to use them as mere floating, emoting mannequins. The pompous narration does little to assuage this disconnect; it is difficult to feel anything for these characters.
What is frustrating about Knight of Cups is that it is a genuinely beautiful film. There are countless images that other film makers scrabble their whole lives for, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, of banality. The relentless beauty becomes dulling, and because there is no emotional connection with the characters or the story, they become shallow. I never thought I would use ‘shallow’ to describe a Malick film, but there we are. DOP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is again astounding, roaming and swooping, ducking and diving, swirling and twirling, but we may have come to a point when it might actually be a hindrance to Malick.
Lubezki’s collaboration with Malick has been the most notable change in his recent career, and it has been an exceedingly rich meeting of minds. However, Lubezki’s eye is beginning to overpower the story, or what little there is of it. The sprawling improvisation that Lubezki has allowed Malick seems to have dulled his senses- perhaps Malick needs to go back to basics for his next one. The still framing of Badlands and Days of Heaven, a more linear structure, more causal development of characters. In Knight of Cups, there is a feeling that Malick has indulged himself too much, much like the central protagonist Rick.
There are some redeeming points to the film. Hanan Townshend’s score is playful and nuanced, giving this contemporary story a classical, mythical grounding. Some images will linger in the mind, even if they are somewhat literal, such as the canine diving into the luminescent pool, yearning to gets its jaws around an elusive ball. It is an obvious metaphor for Rick’s own struggle to find meaning, always clutching out for something more. Sadly, we find Malick in a similar mode, reaching out for greatness and falling at the last moment.