What if Terrence Malick directed an episode of Entourage? Well, we’re about to find out, sort of. In Knight of Cups, the director of Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life turns his roaming camera and ruminating voice-overs toward Los Angeles and the movie business, where the excesses of money and sex and success and ego run rampant. It’s a hell of a thing, watching a filmmaker known for his dreamy shots of nature tackle the surreal, frenzied bustle of modern lust and glitz. He films Los Angeles and Las Vegas like some strange, distant planet filled with magnificent, unnatural creatures. Knight of Cups might be both the most intoxicating film he’s ever made — a deluge of gorgeous, kinetic images and sounds — and, in some ways, the most perplexing.
There is a whisper of a plot: Christian Bale plays Rick, a successful screenwriter (at least, we think he’s a screenwriter) who drifts through a world of freewheeling parties, beautiful women, barely audible negotiations and family strife. The film is divided into loose chapters, each centering not around incidents so much as figures: an impulsive but melancholy actress (Imogen Poots); a model (Freida Pinto) who refuses Rick’s advances; his father (Brian Dennehy), gruff and deeply religious; a brother (Wes Bentley), an addict filled with rage; his estranged wife (Cate Blanchett), a physician who’s reflective about their failed marriage; a married woman (Natalie Portman) with whom he briefly seems to find true love.
These feel more like symbols, or apparitions, than characters. But then again, so does Rick: As Bale plays him, he alternates between hedonistic abandon and forlorn wandering; we get little insight into his specific needs or worries. More than ever, Malick shrugs off the demands of narrative. Someone might start to speak, then get drowned out by a bit of voice-over, or a shot of someone else leaning in a telling way, or a particular pattern of buildings, or a pan up to the sky. That’s nothing new for Malick; he’s been headed in this direction. His previous film, the much-maligned but mesmerizingly desolate To the Wonder, was best understood as a dance performance — one in which the silent characters’ ceaseless, stylized movements said more about what was happening than any dialogue or plot point ever could. Knight of Cups continues in that vein. Malick shoots and cuts with an eye for light, motion and texture, forsaking narrative clarity.
At the same time, whereas before he was coy with his influences, Malick directly invokes the kinds of spiritual texts that he once only hinted at. Knight of Cups begins with the opening words of John Bunyan’s Christian quest allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as a fable about a prince who was sent to a distant land by his father to retrieve a pearl but lost himself in pleasure and excess. In that fable, inspired by the medieval Persian mystic Suhrawardi’s “Tale of the Western Exile,” the prince slowly recovers his purpose thanks to messengers sent by his father; Bunyan’s hero, named Christian, also is confronted with symbols and signs and guides. An English Baptist and a Sufi poet: an ideal double-barreled allusion for a filmmaker who is equal parts preacher and flower child. Still, the specific texts are not that important. Malick is simply tapping into a long line of artists and thinkers who have meditated on the idea of the city as a metaphor for temptation and destruction, of exile from the self.
It's no surprise that Malick's film unfolds like a dream, with little overt narrative purpose or logic. But someone or something is clearly trying to shake the dreamer from his slumber. Early on Rick wakes up to a brief earthquake, and in some ways its aftershocks never cease as the film continues. Malick's camera never lets up, whipping, tilting, panning, shaking, crawling, hurtling; this might be the most unhinged his frame has ever been. And maybe also the most claustrophobic: People in Knight of Cups constantly look out through glass, through grates and iron bars, over precipices and walls. When we first meet Rick’s dad, he’s pacing in a small, empty room with glass walls as if under observation. Nobody ever walks in or out in this film; they’re always just there. Images of elevators keep turning up, as they did in Tree of Life.
Like Bunyan's and Suhrawardi’s allegorical pilgrims, Malick’s Christian/Rick finds himself prodded and poked by the people he meets. Everyone seems to provide some sign, some brief moment of clarity that helps him along. Poots’ vivacious actress gestures out a message: “I … think … you’re … weak.” Antonio Banderas, briefly stealing the movie as a Lothario dancing it up at a Hollywood dog party, murmurs, “Treat this world as it deserves. There are no principles, just circumstances. Nobody’s home.” Rick’s brother keeps punching him, fake-jabbing forks at him, throwing balls at him, just to get him to feel something. Author Peter Matthiessen shows up, tending a Zen garden and singing the virtues of monasticism.
All this probably makes Knight of Cups seem like work. In fact, it might be the least “difficult” film Malick has made; it plays as a dream, and it plays like a dream. Sure, it takes his anti-narrative impulses further than ever before, but it’s a film that exists very much on the surface — in the wild colors and movements on the screen. We can’t really understand Rick’s intoxication and gradual revulsion if the movie doesn’t seduce us; we have to lose ourselves a little in its rhythms and sensuality. You don’t reason your way through a film like this; you let it wash over you, pull you this way and that.
Or you reject it. Many will run screaming from Knight of Cups, even as some of us are enraptured. At times, Malick almost seems to welcome this polarized response. Though the filmmaker is nothing if not sincere, he’s also slyly self-aware. Consider the vaguely ridiculous moment when Rick looks up at a scantily clad dancer gyrating on the ceiling of a Vegas club and earnestly murmurs, in voice-over, “How do I reach you?” This is a guy who will find transcendence — or at least a yearning for it — everywhere. How do you make a film about that state of mind, that longing? Well, maybe like this.