Jake Bridgman ‘19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Pablo Picasso once said, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Nowadays, Terrence Malick seems to hold himself to that framework in his own filmmaking. The reclusive director has only seven features in his four decade career, with each one chaotically breaking down the conventions of what we know as narrative cinema. Malick’s older features, such as Badlands (1973) and The Thin Red Line (1998) are triumphs of conventional cinema, eliciting profound, while simplistic, plots through symphonic editing and heart-aching storytelling. But when we arrive to The Tree of Life (2011), we see Malick pushing the boundaries of his narrative philosophy through formalistic gaiety and a, quite literally, nebulous structure, invoking questions of the universe and family bounds. It was at this point that Malick achieved a sort of cinematic expression of cubism.
His latest feature, Knight of Cups unfolds as the beautiful serendipity of a directionless screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale) while he goes cavorting through Los Angeles with a variety of young women. The film is broken up into various vignettes, each one prefaced with a title of a tarot card, such as ‘The Moon’, ‘The Hanged Man’, ‘Death’ and so on. These cards chronicle Rick’s relationship with different women, including a stripper named Helen (Teresa Palmer), a married woman (Natalie Portman), his ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and a model (Freida Pinto). What’s divisive about this is how trying to adequately describe the film on paper makes it sound like a more cohesive story than it actually is. More accurately, every part of the film bleeds into every other part, as the dialogue is rarely synchronous and overlays with the visual scenes. This creates a juxtaposition between what we see on the screen and Rick’s dispassionate voice-overs of memory-spliced, out-of-context dialogue like “I spent 30 years not living”.
The film walks a very, very thin line of Malick reaching a point where narrative has all but evaporated in lieu of emotion, visual feeling, and sometimes idiosyncratic self-parody, and something more of an inquiry into unrefined cinematic abstraction. The film reads somewhat close to a haughty film student trying to emulate Malick himself, but lacking the depth in visual connections. For example, there is moment in the film where you can not help but laugh when Rick watches a woman wash her hands in spring water and slowly moans, “life”. It plays out like a comedy sketch. But it also can be a final stage in Malick’s transformation to a purely associative director because the film is also steeped in symbolism and references to literature. Maybe the dismal and idiosyncratic escapades Rick gets himself into are pointing to the idea that Hollywood is a disorienting and draining place, saturated in misdirected analyses, and in this case, the viewers are definitely able to feel this with uncomfortable numbness towards the film.
However, there is novelty in this. Three-time Oscar-winning Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is able to rescue the film from self-destruction with innovative shot composition and an uncanny ability to render Los Angeles and into an oneiric landscape of lost dreams and empty souls. The cast gives generally confused and hesitant performances as if they are also empty souls, living in dream world of dispassion. At one point the free spirited Helen tells Rick, “Dreams are nice, but you can’t live in them.” It seems Terrence Malick has found the way to do it, alienating most viewers in the process.
Despite the diminishing narrative returns, the most ardent Malick apologists will be able to let the film wash them over emotionally, appreciate it’s formal exploration and find virtue it’s symbolism, but anyone not up for the task will find Knight of Cups incomprehensible and terminally overreaching in breadth.
Overall Rating: B-
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