(Terrence Malick, USA, 2016)
The apportioning of an artist's career into "periods" is a delicate and hazardous business, particularly if that artist is still living. On a purely biological basis, it would seem that Terrence Malick is now in his late period, given that he's recently crossed the threshold of 70. But then, he's only made seven features, and the recent few have come at a positive torrent, at least when compared to his earlier output. If he keeps it up at this pace - we're told that he has two more films that are complete or nearing completion - it might be more accurate, when the final tallies are made, to designate Knight of Cups as a middle-period piece. His recent work has been so brilliantly inventive, so emotionally searching and courageous, that its hard to imagine him ever slowing down, and even harder to imagine what new heights of achievement he might reach in a later stage.
The point being, it isn't always easy to appreciate how special something is while it's happening. Lives, like stories, take shape in retrospect, when the armature of narrative is applied. The same is true of artistic careers, those funny things we create to make sense of a cluster of works from an artist who has made his or her mark on the world. We can see the mark, but the meaning takes time to arise. In fifty years, if the human race is still around to talk about cinema, we'll still be trying to make sense of Malick's movies, and time will likely have provided us with more clues. For now, however, we can only appraise what exists to the best of our abilities, knowing that our understanding is limited, but our impressions are as fresh and as vivid as they will ever be. And for that, we should be grateful.
The passing of time, and the meaning that arises or doesn't arise from time and one's attention to it, is the force that gives Malick's latest opus its form. It is, as his films have increasingly been, framed in a way that denotes a specifically Christian approach to the world (and whatever lies beyond the world.) This has been a source of distraction to many viewers and critics. Some have recoiled at the Christian stuff, finding it archaic, retrograde, stale, clichéd, etc. Others have celebrated it, casting Malick as less an artist than a proselytizer, although the wisest among them haven't claimed that he can't be both. It must be said that this is an issue Malick seems to be aware of, and even struggles with, as he excavates his own feelings, be they religious, sensual, or otherwise.
But Malick isn't trying to convince anyone of anything. His faith in the world, in the manifest beauty and miraculousness of existence, unfolding before us minute by minute, is enough. It's a take-it-or-leave it proposition, as all art is. Christian Wiman said that "in the finding of a form for one's experience one's whole soul can be at stake," and that's how it must be for Malick. He's put himself into his work to a degree that few artists of any medium dare, and his faith seems to be that the work will hold him and still be worthy of the world. There's a tremendous joy in that, but also a kind of terrible risk. There is no guarantee that you'll find your form, or that if you do, that the world will notice.
Another common mistake has been to cast this film as a kind of rebuke or condemnation of Hollywood. The depictions of the Hollywood types certainly aren't flattering, but they are never less than alive. Malick doesn't portray Hollywood as a cesspool or as a vacuous waste of humanity, although he's aware that those are not inaccurate descriptions. He is as bemused and appalled and attracted as we are, and why shouldn't we be? To deny that decadence can be beautiful, or that the allure of worldly power and freedom will tempt even the best among us, indeed especially the very best among us, who assume that their intelligence and virtue will immunize them from temptation, is to take a child's view of the world. Malick isn't letting himself off the hook, but he is also not about to moralize his way out of that conundrum. Crucially, there is no alternative home for Christian Bale's character, the lost and restless Rick. To the extent that grace may be found, it will be found exactly where he is. It's a matter of perspective, a question of vision.
The film is divided into chapters, the titles of which are taken from the Tarot. This complicates the Christian element no less than the appearance of Peter Matthiessen, who raps with Rick about Zen Buddhism Although the metaphor of the spiritual journey is the film's major structural conceit, the journey's progression is anything but linear. Malick moves the story to and fro in time, doubling back and then vaulting forward, tracing the movements of a troubled, searching mind. This mind belongs to Rick, of course, but the perspective is not his exclusively. In one of Malick's many profound aesthetic tropes, the consciousness of the film is permeable, and other characters - Rick's father and brother, the women from his past, the disembodied voices of John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, and Ben Kingsley, reading from spiritual and philosophical texts - often intrude.
Again, much of the critical discussion seems to miss this central fact. Bale's character, while deeply lonely, is not alone, and the consciousness of the film extends far beyond his straitened view. Trying to draw a philosophical conclusion from this is hard work, and probably unnecessary: there need not be a strict formula for where Rick's impressions, imaginations, and the exterior world all diverge. But still, the character himself, and his role in the world of movies, is puzzling, at least initially. What is this guy, who is clearly uncomfortable in the thicket of opulence and raw ambition that is show business, doing there? And he's supposed to a comedy writer - is that a deadpan joke by Malick?
Probably, in part, it is meant to be funny. But it also makes perfect sense, given the themes of the film: the pain underlying excessive displays of joy, the masks that must be donned to navigate a world of willful illusion (masks, and other ways of obscuring one's face, come up with some frequency in the film), the perennial absurdity of the movie colony's pretensions and garishness. When we first encounter Rick, he is surely a different man than the one who came out to Los Angeles, lured by the palm trees that "make you believe anything is possible..." and the promise of easy, high living. But even then, in his salad days as a hotshot, he seems to have held himself in reserve, indulging fulsomely in the sensual delights available to him but protecting his tender side behind a wall of aloofness. There are clues littered throughout the film: a walk-and-talk with Rick's "people" (as they say in the 'biz), during
which one of his suits recounts Rick's grand ambition (something about being the biggest screenwriter in Hollywood), and how he (the suit) just got a studio boss
(somebody named Ted) to double Rick's quote. Also revealed in the swatches of dialogue: Rick has failed to turn in one of his writing assignments,
although, due to the hard work of his rep, that fact, and the trouble
associated with it, "goes away" now that he's bagged this even bigger
and better assignment.
Rick has been faltering for some time, it would appear. Indeed, as we encounter him in what could tenuously be called the "present" of the film's timeline, he is living in a small, sparsely furnished loft in downtown L.A., not the sprawling, modernist house in the Hills, where he lived with his former wife, played by Cate Blanchette. As for the money, and the need to acquire so much of it: this likely comes from Rick's troubled family dynamic. We hear some of the scarcity ethic preached by his father, who talks of the sacrifices he made to provide for his family, and by the predicament of his brother, who appears unable to care for himself, financially or otherwise.
Rick, then, despite having almost no spoken lines, and whose anhedonic mien changes little over the course of the running time, is a complex and vivid character, and played expertly by Bale. It's been some time since Bale showed his boyish side, his vulnerability, and it feels like bracing desert air after the severity and dourness of his stint as a superhero. Malick's method of crafting performances is crucial to this, of course: while the overriding impression of Nick is of a listless and sorrowful soul, the depth of his character is revealed in quick, bright flashes of emotion: lust, joy, fear, and rage all make appearances, all the more striking for their brevity. While the peripheral characters - the women around whose Rick's recollections tend to center, and his volatile male relatives - are not as deeply sketched, they are carefully individuated. Rick's memory of his affairs - serious and frivolous alike - is rendered in a deeply human way. He is searching for meaning with an almost desperate intensity, but he is easily sidetracked by the flood of emotions that complicates any act of memory, voluntary or not.
Knight of Cups, while close kin to Malick's previous two films (some have gone as far as to suggest a trilogy, although it will take another film to see if this is correct), is a noted departure. In the first place, his restless experimentation with editing, shooting mediums, performance, and time, has only deepened. Knight may be his most musical film to date, with its carefully harmonic and rhythmic succession of images - a theme is stated, developed, repeated - going beyond even the cosmic span of Tree of Life and the intimacy of To the Wonder. Malick is freer than he's ever been, and taking greater risks. The element of the surreal - which has always been present in Malick's movies, but usually far less so - is also, in his latest, far more prominent. Two examples spring to mind: Rick's half-dreamed, half-observed study of his father, who is shown pacing in an abandoned office building, and who performs an ablution in blood. The other comes late in the film, after the revelation that Natalie Portman's character (she's billed as Elizabeth) has had an abortion, likely because of her doubts about Rick's love, with whom she has been having an affair. Elizabeth and Rick are in a room, shrouded in smoke, decorated in white, where a child gambols about. These scenes are jarring, both in their sudden departure from the quasi-documentary style of other sequences, and in their use of imagery that can feel familiar, even clichéd. But Malick's originality purges these symbols - some of which are rather obvious, which need not be a knock - of their familiarity. As always, it is through context that meaning arrives, and, perhaps more importantly, emotion.
Beyond that, there is a shift in emotional tenor - and even, possibly, in metaphysical orientation - that is rather stark when compared to the previous two movies. Whereas Tree and Wonder both tilted towards redemption, even in the face of terrible loss, Knight is a decidedly more uncertain and troubled film. While Malick's eye is never far from the manifest beauty of the world, and the grace that seems to underlie it, Rick's deliverance from his ennui, his recovery of himself, is cast in great doubt. The whole movie, it would seem, pivots on the edge of a decision by Rick to "begin." Time is bearing him forward, even as he beats against it. As the film winds down, his moorings become more vague, his vision more abstracted. Is he finally on the path to find solid ground, a sense of himself, a moral and emotional center? A final woman appears, blond and diaphanous, the only true wisp in the story; we don't, as I recall, actually see her face. Rick is back in the desert, and seems to be climbing, seeking the light, looking upward. (My pet theory is that the upcoming Weightless will be a companion piece to this film, even a second part, and may offer more finality to the tale.) Knight of Cups is Malick's most sensuously excessive film, his most conflicted, and his most confounding. I've still only seen it once, and I'm eager to see it again; to savor it, to try to make better sense of it, to see how it matches my memories.