Get Your Wings
By Nick Pinkerton
Knight of Cups
Dir. Terrence Malick, U.S., Broad Green Pictures
Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is an adventure in perception, a city symphony, and an excruciatingly lavish crucible. It takes place almost entirely in southern California, allowing for an extended trip to Las Vegas, which resembles Rome in the age of Tiberius (or of DeMille), a brief journey in the cold of space to view the Aurora Borealis, and a few furtive glimpses of Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch. While mostly remaining in the precincts of Greater Los Angeles, the film encompasses a staggering breadth of contrast. There is desert and sea, high life and lowlife, people passing out at penthouse parties and on downtown pavement.
The unifying presence for all this is Rick (Christian Bale), a commercial Hollywood screenwriter, as Malick himself was for a stretch in the early 1970s, contributing to such seemingly un-Malickian projects as Dirty Harry (1971) and Deadhead Miles (1973). Rick is evidently financially successful: he cruises the L.A. freeways by night in a classic Lincoln Continental convertible, thinks nothing of jumping into the surf or a swimming pool in an immaculate Armani suit, and from what we can see spends even the days he stays in the city in a state of permanent semi-vacation. When he is very occasionally seen to tend to his business, walking the streets of a false-front town on a studio backlot, clocking out of a story conference, or shoring up his finances at a downtown bank, Rick retains the same air of mild distraction, craning his neck as though he’s certain that he’s missing something crucial just out of his line of vision. Restless, roving Rick seems to be one of those people who can’t enter a room without immediately formulating an exit strategy, and this extends to his personal relationships as well. Walking the streets with his ex-wife (played by Cate Blanchett, one of the most beautiful women in movies), he turns his head this way and that to follow the parade of sylphs with fresh modeling contracts newly arrived to the city. “You never really wanted to be totally inside our marriage,” we hear her say, “Or outside it, either.”
Blanchett’s character is one of the several women we see pass through Rick’s life, while only occasionally seeming to penetrate his taciturn reserve—to get inside. Some of them seem to understand his game of withholding for what it is: “You think I could make you crazy,” teases Imogen Poots, a pick-up who confronts him with mocking, kohl-rimmed eyes. “Crack you out of your shell, make you suffer.” Knight of Cups is made up of eight chapters, most of them dedicated to a single romantic dalliance, and all of them named for a Tarot card, as is the film itself. Poots stars in the first, The Moon; the chapter with Blanchett is titled Judgment; while The High Priestess is set in Las Vegas, where Rick is accompanied by an Australian stripper (Teresa Palmer). Each of these vignettes has an individual character largely conveyed through image and gesture: the almost vampiric embraces between Bale and Poots; the tender play of hands between Rick and a married lover (Natalie Portman), which is amplified in proximity to the projection of Bruce Nauman’s “For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers)” at a visit to LACMA, or the moment when he smilingly takes her toes into his mouth; the placid, ethereal image of the final lover (Isabel Lucas) wading nude through the illuminated, almost primordial pool of some Palm Springs getaway, her legs casting two long columns of shadow across its bottom. Other chapters introduce ancillary characters who aren’t romantic interests. In The Hermit, Rick wanders the grounds of a lavish shindig at the Malibu mansion of a Spanish satyr (Antonio Banderas), a set piece that manages to simultaneously recall Antonioni’s La notte (1961) and—in old horndog Banderas’s statement that “women are like flavors: sometimes you want raspberry, and then you get tired of it and you want strawberry”—Raekwon’s “Ice Cream.” The Hanged Man introduces Rick’s family: his father (Brian Dennehy) and his brother (Wes Bentley), who’s had a troubled past marked by addiction. Another brother’s absence is an oppressive presence—he committed suicide, as did Malick’s own younger brother, Larry. The family never appears to have recovered from the trauma, and their gatherings tend to devolve into spittle-flecked screaming matches, which Rick increasingly copes with by detaching himself, gazing off the side of a rooftop or intently gathering the flowers spilled from an upended vase.
All of this is introduced by a sort of prologue, in which we first encounter Rick wandering by himself in Death Valley, a scene to which the film will return—though he is always essentially alone, he is only truly by himself here. Unless we keep track of the length of Bale’s stubble, it’s impossible to construct a timeline of the events we’re shown, but there is a sense that everything we see is being remembered by Rick as he wanders the wastes, sifting through the images of his life as Malick has been sorting through the known details of his autobiography in The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012). Shortly after the voice of John Gielgud recites the title page of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Dennehy—heard before he is first seen—arrives on the soundtrack, asking “Remember the story I used to tell you as a young boy?” He goes on to recall the story of a knight sent to Egypt on a quest to recover a precious pearl, only to have his ambitions deferred: “When the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king. He forgot about the pearl.” While we hear of the deception of the prince, a sun-dappled scene of children at play gives way to adult Rick indulging in grown-up games at a hotel rooftop rented for the occasion, effectively transformed into an adult playpen. This is followed by a brief black-and-white stop-motion sequence that could be an early Walerian Borowczyk animation or a contact sheet brought to life: a topless model whose eyes are concealed by a mask that appears to have been torn from a magazine, an X visible on each of her shoulder blades that might be scars showing where the wings once were. Is this vision of eroticism and imposture sozzled Rick’s troubled dream after another wasted night? At any case, he is soon rudely awakened, scrambling onto the street in the aftermath of an earthquake, looking around him with an expression of dazed bafflement that often accompanies the viewing of latter-day Terrence Malick movies. Here is where the pilgrimage begins.
We tend to say that an adequate star performance “holds the center of the frame,” but in Knight of Cups, as in the blowing about of the dry husk of Sean Penn in The Tree of Life or the glowering, aloof Ben Affleck in To the Wonder, Malick is further experimenting with the idea of the central character as a kind of structuring absence. Consequently, the frame frequently slips Bale entirely, following his promiscuous, unmoored gaze to whatever has caught it. He is especially susceptible to anything in transit, suggesting far off places: a lone car passing through the desert, a pelican temporarily parked on a marina, a freight train moving on the tracks that line the Los Angeles River, or a commercial jet flying overhead. (His idea of a good time, we see, is to drive out to LAX and watch the planes come in.) Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, his collaborator since 2005’s The New World, continue to practice and refine the visual style they’ve developed together, a weightless drift that might be likened to out-of-body-experiences or surfing in amniotic fluid. (It is telling that their forthcoming collaboration is titled Weightless.) While Rick is ostensibly the film’s protagonist, the perspective freely moves between the objective and the subjective, even breaking from any readily discernible connection with the narrative entirely. When, late in the film, Armin Mueller-Stahl suddenly makes an appearance as a priest, sermonizing on the role of suffering in God’s love in a church empty save for one middle-aged, female parishioner, there is no clue as to how the scene relates to Rick—if he has gone to the priest for spiritual succor, if this is something remembered from boyhood, or if he is present in this church at all. To the undoubted frustration of some, Malick is going still further with the idea of the protagonist as a void into which viewers can insert themselves. On first hearing the film’s title, I joked that it sounded like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and now that I’ve seen it, the reference actually seems more appropriate.
I have seen Knight of Cups twice now, once for the initial immersion and once to take notes. I look forward to seeing it a third time just to bask. In spite of the time spent, I realize that I cannot recall a single moment of Bale speaking onscreen, though of course he does. At any rate, it’s through voiceover that Rick reveals himself, and what he reveals is the sort of self-doubt that is epidemic in the movie colony, and which often drives actors into politics or performance art or working for scale in a Terrence Malick movie. “Where did I go wrong?” he asks. “I can’t remember the man I wanted to be,” he plaints. “We’re not leading the lives that we were meant for,” he pines. Such thoughts are, perhaps, a little repetitive, but then the mental tape-loop of a serious, identity-shaking depression tends to be. He shares space on the soundtrack with a dense collage of pop and classical pieces, new compositions by Hanan Townshend, and as part of a jostling chorus of voices. Some belong to Rick’s lovers and loved ones passing their judgments on him, while others are more difficult to source—like that of Charles Laughton, who paraphrases the dialogue of Plato’s Phaedrus while Rick and a consort wander through an aquarium, watching the graceful float of the creatures on display. In the passage in question, Socrates describes the soul, once winged and weightless, now fallen to earth, though “when we see a beautiful woman or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven,” and in his longing for missing wings and paradise lost, “man keeps staring up at the sky like a young bird.” (Among the few facts that have recently emerged about the press-averse Malick is that he is apparently an avid bird-watcher.)
The Malick of today may be the quintessential cult director: those who respond to his movies couldn’t be kept away from a new one, and you can’t tell anything to those who don’t. He has his devotees and his detractors—insofar as I can tell the factions are both well-populated, though this doesn’t keep commenters on either side from striking those self-dramatizing “lone voice in the wilderness” poses that are the bane of any worthwhile criticism. (For my part, I will never understand those hostile responses to Malick, which seem determined to hold the line so that American narrative cinema won’t be overrun by avant-garde abstraction, as though there was a flotilla of directors making experimental films on this scale instead of literally just one guy.) One complaint, a variation of which was probably best articulated by Kent Jones in regards to To the Wonder, is that Malick has become indifferent to and neglectful of his actors. With the belated arrival of Knight of Cups in American cinemas, a story from comedian Tom Lennon has been making the rounds, in which he discusses being “directed” for his role with only a piece of paper bearing the cryptic phrase “There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.” And so the same cultural media that has been publishing panegyrics to the late David Bowie, whose arguable creative peak was accomplished with the help of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” can have a good chuckle over Crazy Old Recluse Terry. In fact the operation of chance within a defined framework—which might also describe a Tarot reading—has long been a crucial aspect of Malick’s process; we may recall the story of 1978’s Days of Heaven being entrusted to a 15-year-old amateur actress, Linda Manz, whose rambling voiceover, conceived in postproduction, opened up the movie. In the case of Knight of Cups, the only performance that seems to me not to “work” is Bentley’s, his approximation of fraternal affection overly inclined to fall back on roughhousing.
Another of the knocks against Malick is that his movies are too pretty, too glutted with gorgeous scenery caught in the gloaming, to the point that they look “like television commercials.” (You never hear what commercials, precisely, look like this—I almost exclusively watch TV for sports, and nothing in the Cialis and F-150 oeuvre comes close.) I don’t know if Malick pays any attention to his press, good or bad—my gut says that he doesn’t—but Knight of Cups is proof positive that he’s more engaged with the paradoxes inherent in his addiction to beauty than those who would chastise him for it. Here, Malick is actively in dialogue with advertising imagery. Like the Antonioni of Zabriskie Point, he is enamored of Los Angeles’s billboards, and at one point we take a first-person POV cruise down Sunset Boulevard by night, passing adverts for Stella Artois, Prada, H&M, and . . . Oliver Stone’s Savages. (Knight of Cups had an unusually long gestation, shot in 2012.) While dating a model (Freida Pinto), subject of the chapter The Tower, Rick hangs around during one of her photo shoots at a modernist house in the Hollywood Hills. The scene has an exquisite sense of the changing light during a long day in the heights of the city, and a feel for how an idle afternoon quietly drains away. It is also disarmingly funny; as Pinto poses with a gym-buffed blonde, the director of the shoot, played by reality TV star Kelly Cutrone, is heard enthusing “You’re like a 1975 housewife who takes steroids and fucks girls during the day!” Malick, the reported lover of the first Zoolander film who gave Redd Foxx a Special Thanks credit in Days of Heaven, has peppered his cast with comic cameos by the likes of Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, and Nick Offerman, whose one audible line—“Living my life is like playing Call of Duty on easy. I just go around and fuck shit up”—is the most concise encapsulation of privilege that I expect to encounter in 2016.
These snippets of levity aside, Knight of Cups is a troubling movie, troubling in the way that it plays with the confusion between the language of spiritual yearning and the language of advertising, both of which work on our sense of “missing piece” incompleteness and exist to stir want, a sense of lack. The film abounds in images of just-out-of-reach objects of desire: dancers dangling from the ceiling at a Vegas cabaret act, like fruit ripe for the plucking; underwater shots of dogs diving into a swimming pool after squeaky toys, their jaws only just failing to close around them. Water imagery is everywhere, too, as is the refrain of “The Pearl,” which seems to complement both the recurring images of submersion and the faraway, opalescent moon. The source here is The Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas, a third-century apocryphal text—many people writing about Malick seem to confuse him for a Catholic, which he isn’t, though he is certainly catholic in the breadth of his spiritual influences. (In Vegas we see an ersatz kind of Eastern shrine, and later Rick wanders the grounds of the Japanese garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.)
The movie raises a number of vexing questions: what is beautiful when beauty is a disposable, replaceable commodity? Where is the true image in a world that is a surfeit of screens? Is “Faith” more than a tattoo, “Fidelity” more than an investment management company? What separates Rick’s winding trips along the elegant Los Angeles highway system in his Lincoln from, say, Matthew McConaughey’s philosophical night drives for the 2016 Lincoln MKX? Even the whispered “Begin,” with which Dennehy’s voice urges Rick forward on his ambiguous quest, wouldn’t be out of place on a travel advert: Get the light in your eyes back! Visit the Caymans!
Malick seems less interested in resolving these conflicts than in questioning if they are, in fact, conflicts. Though his screen grammar is as loose as the Coens’ is rigid, his latest makes a suitable companion piece to their Hail, Caesar!, which had more religious feeling than any two dozen evangelical cash-ins. (“Squint! Squint into the grandeur!”) Knight of Cups doesn’t build a pro-con counterpoint between genuine spirituality and Hollywood fakery any more than The New World or To the Wonder did in their contrast of old Europe and young America—the Road of Excess is just as important as the Palace of Wisdom.
As Knight of Cups moves toward its close, we return to Rick in the desert, clambering up a steep, rocky incline. If he is headed somewhere, we can only guess at his destination from the instructions of his father. (“The East”? Is that what that hint of St. Louis was all about?) In fact, he isn’t dressed for a long hike, and there is no reason to believe that he’s setting off to start a new monastic life—the kind that people assume Malick leads—and wild-honey-and-locusts diet. Silence (like Malick’s media silence, or like the front of a fireproof wall that Rick offers up to the world) is often taken as a provocation. We feel there is something greedy in reserve, in keeping yourself to yourself. Even more than Malick’s other recent works, Knight of Cups seems destined to frustrate. It’s a porous vessel, at once forever filled to the brim and forever draining away its contents, a movie that goes everywhere and arrives . . . where, exactly? Is it just, as Rick’s father finds while sorting through the wreck and ruin of his life, a collection of “Fragments . . . Pieces”? Maybe Rick will continue on as he has, even backslide from whatever peace of mind he’s found. Maybe he will make a different sort of movie than the type he’s worked on up to this point, as Malick did. Or maybe the best that can be hoped for is that he’ll see the world around him a little more clearly, as Malick has helped me to do.