Rick is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, California. While he's successful in his career, his life feels empty. Haunted by the death of one brother and the dire circumstances of the other, he finds temporary solace in the Hollywood excess that defines his existence. Women provide a distraction to the daily pain he must endure, and every encounter that comes his way brings him closer to finding his place in the world. The film is divided into eight chapters (each named after a tarot card, except for the final chapter Freedom), plus a prologue, each loosely based around the central character's relationship with somebody in his life..
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An enigma within and enigma (albeit a beautiful one).
Let me start by saying that I regard Terrence Malick as the sole currently working director who can be spoken of with the same reverence as that for the great early masters of cinema – Welles, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Renoir (make your own list). Since 'The Tree of Life' - even since 'The New World', I have thought of him as the saviour of modern cinema from the slurry of bland naturalism.
But the enormous stylistic advances in cinematic expression that have characterised his recent works have come at a price, and the price is clarity of vision. We do not necessarily need to *know* what his images represent, but we need to *feel* it. Occasionally in 'The Tree of Life', frequently in 'To the WONDER' and most of the time in 'Knight of Cups' most people would, I suspect, be at a loss to rationally explain the relevance of much of Malick's visual expression. (They don't always 'feel' right, either.)
So (after three viewings) I offer my 'guide' to this enigmatic film. The 'story' (no story) of 'Knight of Cups' is that of a 'celebrity' Rick (Christian Bale) on the loose in Hollywood, who has lost his moral compass and lives a life of total debauchery drifting from one soulless sexual encounter to another in between failed relationships.
This is represented in a kaleidoscopic torrent of imagery reminiscent of the works of Bruce Connor in the 1960s. Bale does the best he can with the central role of Rick, a 'celebrity' in Hollywood, but, like Sean Penn in 'The Tree of Life', he has really drawn the short straw, as he, like Ben Affleck, Penn and Richard Gere before him tries to wordlessly express his response to ambiguous emotional and moral situations.
Malick, to his credit, tells us what the film is about in an opening voice-over, which recounts a story ('Hymn of the Pearl') from Acts of Thomas in the Apocrypha. A king sends his son to search for a pearl in a foreign land. The pearl is to be found in the sea, protected by a hissing serpent, but the prince is seduced by the inhabitants of the foreign country and given a sleeping draft. After he awakes, he has forgotten not only what he came for, but even that he is a prince.
Much of the first half of the film memorably (but not graphically) depicts the life of total decadence that Rick finds in Tinseltown. But this is interspersed with encounters – real or imagined, present or past – with people from his former life – wife, brother, father.
The term 'emotional roller coaster' is often inappropriately used, but here it is very precisely apt, as one has the sense of Rick being propelled down paths he'd rather not take by external forces over which he has lost control. But, for me, at least, this section is too long and suffers from overkill, in the 'when you've seen one, you've seen 'em all' sense.
The rest of the film follows Rick in his attempts to make sense of his life and find 'the pearl', and, to be fair, the film does give the sense of an inexorable move in this direction which aids dramatic tension and gives clarity in some measure. As in 'To the WONDER', with the story of the crisis of faith of the priest, here also there are tangential sections in which compassion is seen as the alter ego of passion, and the place of young children adds positive emotion to an otherwise extremely bleak, if dazzlingly beautiful work.
Yes, Malick's unique visual lyricism is frequently on display, but, I would have to say that it seems less well integrated into the work's thematic thrust than it is in other of his films, but I could be mistaken here and I will be wanting to see it at least four or five more times when it opens in France in a couple of months.
Visually it is, from time to time, spectacular; sometimes Malick's montages are breathtaking, but there are great mysteries here that I have not come near to fathoming even after three viewings. Frequent shots of high-flying passenger jets, fast-moving shots from the front of a car on desert roads and long-held bleak landscapes from Death Valley and environs punctuate the film. It is not difficult to see the 'meaning' that these images carry, but it is difficult to know why they are repeated so often.
If I sound disappointed, I have not deceived, but Malick, with his entire work, has set the bar so high that anything not bordering on masterpiece simply has to be a disappointment. I drove a thousand kilometres to see this film and back again, and I do not regret the time and effort, but this is a desperately difficult work to fathom and, frankly, for me, makes 'To the WONDER' look like a model of clarity.
I see it as the third (and sadly least) in an intensely personal trilogy for Malick. So where next?
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