The Flipside #3: Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups gorgeously captures Los Angeles, but has famed director Terrence Malick fallen too far down the rabbit hole?

Ezell: The best description I’ve read of Terrence Malick’s recent crop of films comes from Jesse Hassenger’s review of Song to Song, Malick’s newest flick, published at The AV Club. Hassenger writes, “With Song To Song, Malick completes a trilogy of experimental B-sides to [The Tree of] Life’s daunting A-side.” The metaphor of “A-side/B-side” can suggest an inferiority on the part of the B-sides, which broadly speaking I think is true of the post-Tree of Life pictures. To the Wonder easily ranks as Malick’s worst picture, and though Song to Song has it moments, as I’ve argued elsewhere it amounts to a minor moment for this legendary director.

But Hassenger’s A-side/B-side comparison has less to do with quality and more to do with aesthetic style. The Tree of Life represents the culmination of Malick’s aesthetic; Roger Ebert was quite right to in 2012 update his list of the greatest films of all time to include it. To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song all feel like tributaries streaming away from but still sourced in The Tree of Life‘s river. Of those three pictures, Knight of Cups comes closest not only to matching the visual excellence of The Tree of Life but also standing alone as a great film in its own right.

Before I wax any more poetic about Knight of Cups, I have to ask about your viewing experience, Evan. Though I consider myself a big Malick fan, I’m not blind to the aspects of his style that with these last three films of his veer headfirst into self-parody. I also know that Malick eschews narrative to such a point that even the most ambitious film viewer might want to abandon ship. So, do you have any love for the film, as I do, or did you feel as lost as Christian Bale at a party hosted by Antonio Banderas?

Sawdey: Well, you see Brice, sometimes you want raspberry … then after a while you want some strawberry. Oh, sorry, caught myself quoting one of Knight of Cups too-iconic lines.

I’m kidding, of course. Bear in mind: while I don’t consider 2011’s The Tree of Life one of the greatest films of all time (sorry, Roger), it does touch on something much more personal, much more human. I was one of the rare advocates of the entire “creation of the earth” sequence, ‘cos goddamn that score did so much heavy lifting, imbuing stock animation with tension in a way few films before or after have been able to capture. Even keen lovers of Tree still have to admit that the Sean Penn portions are, well, meandering. For something that is a summation of the power and totality of life, boy do the “future” Penn portions feel disjointed, adrift, and searching, presented in gorgeous style but hoping you, the viewer, will ascribe meaning to it.

It’s a bold choice, and before we dig into the profound critical reasoning as to why Knight of Cups sucks, I’d like to pull another Roger Ebert quote, one that comes up a lot when I think about any film that takes a strong non-linear or experimental stance. “This is a movie to surrender yourself to. If you require logic, see something else,” he said back in his review in 2001. “Mulholland Drive works directly on the emotions, like music. Individual scenes play well by themselves, as they do in dreams, but they don’t connect in a way that makes sense — again, like dreams. The way you know the movie is over is that it ends.”

This was my experience in dealing with Knight of Cups. Part of the reason why the “B-side” analogy somewhat works is that To the Wonder and Song to Song have a style and substance that is directly drawn back to The Tree of Life. With that film, it’s as if he felt he perfected his style, so made three more films in that aesthetic. When you go into a Malick film now, you can expect 70mm-ready handheld camera work, unusual angles, muted performances from all the actors involved, and sawing, ethereal music overplaying the emotional backing of every scene. It’s almost as if he boiled down his essence into that of an art-house cookie cutter, and much like any batch of cookies: some batches are better than others.

So Mr. Ezell, here is my challenge to you as we get into the nitty-gritty. Please, in your own words, describe the plot of this movie.

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Ezell: The plot? Well, it’s pretty straightforward: Christian Bale’s character Rick finds success but loses everything else in the process. Through the women in his life, he finds something maybe close to redemption.

I recognize even that is not substantial enough to satisfy most, which… well, if you don’t like Malick’s storytelling style in The Tree of Life, there’s no way you’ll like any of the other cookies in the batch, to continue your metaphor. I won’t tout Knight of Cups as a feat of narrative, but as a feat of images, I think it’s near immaculate. I haven’t seen present day Los Angeles photographed more beautifully.

Because of the supremacy of the images over the narrative, this film falls into the category of “I love it, but I don’t expect anybody else to” for me. It’s an undeniably difficult work, yet the images captivate immediately. Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki are a match made in heaven when it comes to cinemaphotography. Hanan Townshend’s score, mixed with Malick’s curated list of classical pieces, elevates the images to near transcendence. Even when the plot meanders, which it does almost immediately, the flow of the images — as chaotic and occasionally fish-eyed as it is — makes sense to me. Your quotation about Mulholland Drive describes my experience perfectly.

Now, with all that said, have I made any sense of my enjoyment of a film that consists mostly of beautiful people meandering to an Arvo Pärt soundtrack?

Sawdey: No, you’re wandering about like Brian Dennehy’s character Joseph, who is Rick’s father, a disjointed and confused old man who … wandered around the set of Knight of Cups a lot.

Honestly, for this ethereal prism of which we’re looking through Rick’s failed, party-heavy-yet-ultimately-empty life, perhaps all his lovers and his ex-wife and his troubled brother and literally every single character would be more interesting had Malick laid down the tiniest of breadcrumbs for us and given Rick a personality.

For the dream-like narrative space this film occupies, only when Cate Blanchett comes in as his ex-wife Nancy does the film actually pop. She brings fire and regret to the role, and gives our lead Christian Bale something to actually play off of, ‘cos when he’s wondering around these decadent L.A. sex parties, it seems less like he’s in search of happiness and more like he’s in search of a single character trait that isn’t either “sexily romping around hotel rooms with models” or “looking sullen while other people speak to him”. Honestly, with demerits to both Bale and Malick, I think the movie’s emotional landscape wouldn’t have felt so empty had either party remembered to put something there. Even in experimental works like this, the old addage is true: if you care about the characters, you care about what happens to them. Instead, Rick is just a vessel, a stand-in for the audience. Things kind of happen to Rick but why? To what end? If Rick was touched with even the lightest bit of tension, given just a dusting of gravitas, I would be intrigued with these vignettes about his life, learning more about him with each iteration. Instead, it’s him who is just floating through all of this, us along for the ride, but I feel nothing for him. Gorgeous as L.A. is under Malick’s lens, making everything look pretty while music plays underneath makes the audience do virtually all of the work themselves, given no mystery to solve or direction to go in. Whoa, wait, maybe I am feeling as raw and empty as Rick! I take it all back: great job, Terrence!

Ezell: Inevitably, every conversation I’ve had about this film — which is, surprisingly, more than one — ends up at this point. You aren’t wrong about the vagueness of Rick and the bulk of the film’s characters; the most substantial roles, in my view, belong to Blanchett and Natalie Portman, who bring a lot of humanity and depth even with the fragmentary moments they’re afforded on screen. Part of what leads to the opacity of the characters in Knight of Cups and all of Malick’s post-Tree of Life films is Malick’s “shoot first, then discover the film in post-production” strategy, which inevitably results in a movie where the affective images take primacy over all else. Character, in this calculation, comes second.

The autobiographical element of Knight of Cups allows for me to follow along with its utter disregard for conventional characterizations. Although Malick superficially seems to resist autobiographical interpretations, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups root their stories in chapters of Malick’s life. As it turns out, Malick was something of an in-demand screenwriter in the ’70s, and it’s been said that Knight of Cups captures some of the dalliances he experienced during that era. Now, whether or not this is true — it’s certainly not as obvious a biographical link as the dead brother in The Tree of Life — what this detail helps me do is alter my expectations, to where I’m not watching a conventional story with characters and a narrative arc, but rather a string of impressionistic memories captured on film. That is where I find the beauty in Knight of Cups: not just in the superficial beauty of Malick and Lubezki’s camerawork, but also in the way that the camera, in all of its tangents and non sequiturs, captures the way in which memories unfold in our head.

This doesn’t quite solve the problem many have with Knight of Cups, of course: while reliving memories can be beautiful, it’s hard to experience memories that you didn’t live, ones that you don’t have context for. For that reason I get the distaste for Knight of Cups: the barrier to entry is high. But for whatever reason, despite To the Wonder not clicking with me at all even as it shares many features with its successor, Knight of Cups still haunts me in a way that few films do.

Sawdey: See, a lot of this speaks to Malick’s stature. Make no mistake, Malick’s films do not make money. He is playing to cinephiles almost exclusively, and while that alone shouldn’t weigh on the artistic merit of the finished product, I didn’t know those biographical elements going into this, and knowing that now, it changes little for me. While that may be the jumping off point to fill the characters lives, the alien-like lens of which Malick views these people’s lives leaves me feeling cold.

Make no mistake: while some may call To the Wonder and Song to Song pretentious, Knight is both pretentious and indulgent. I love the indulgences: the extravagant parties, outrageous costumes, empty movie sets, and everything-to-the-wall celebration and lamentation of Hollywood ennui. It’s fun to see how far it goes, even if, in terms of emotional impact, it pulls the glitter-covered rug out from under you.

As we picked Cups due to the video release of Song to Song, let’s end on a run note: of Malick’s post-Tree B-sides, how would you rank these three films and why?

Ezell: For me, that’s easy:

1. Knight of Cups

2. Song to Song

3. To the Wonder

Knight of Cups ranks head and shoulders above the rest.

What’s interesting about the cinephile milieu of Malick’s films is that the exclusivity of that scene hasn’t led to much cult worship, even though he has some critics who proclaim themselves devotees, like Matt Zoller Seitz of the Roger Ebert website. Whereas David Lynch could film a McDonald’s commercial and there’d be a zillion thinkpieces proclaiming its genius, Malick successfully alienated himself from film circles both for his oddball directorial technique and his increasingly impenetrable films. If you look at Metascores and Rotten Tomatoes numbers for his recent films, it’s clear that he doesn’t have a sea of critics trying to rationalize his every move as a work of genius. I like most of what Malick’s put out, but I also know that there isn’t much else he can get out of the formula he uses in Knight of Cups and his other recent films. If Knight of Cups ends up being the last Malick movie I love, I’ll be okay with that. It captures everything I admire about his philosophical mindset and his eye for painterly shots. You’re right to say that the emotional connection primarily doesn’t come from the characters, but I think it does come from the film’s singular vision.

Sawdey: So are you saying Tree was his raspberry… and schematically, critics are waiting for his strawberry?

Antonio Banderas, briefly cavorting through Knight of Cups

Ezell: And with that, we close out on what we’ve known from Knight of Cups all along: your dream to live as Antonio Banderas.