Memories are unique. They aren’t just personal to us as individuals but they represent the past, a place we can never truly revisit but constantly find ourselves digging long and hard to get back to. They come in brief, harsh flashes, jumping around in time and space until eventually we give up trying to physically reconstruct the past into the present and instead settle on emotions gained from significant (or insignificant) moments in our lives. If you were to take a deep, deep breath, sit in a darkened room and attempt to reconstruct all your past relationships in your mind, you would probably end up having a bad time. Or you could end up taking a spiritual journey similar to Terrence Malick’s new experimental film, Knight of Cups.
Malick frames his newest foray into human sentience through the vessel of Rick, a comedy writer living in the gaudy sun-palace of California, as he begins to question not only his purpose in life but also who he actually is in the first place. Is he a man who has lost his way and needs to hit the open road to escape his empty life in order to find happiness? Or is he a grand mosaic of influences, inelegantly constructed from the women he has fallen in love with throughout his time on this planet? Attempting to subjugate Rick’s mind and perception of life is key to understanding Malick’s film but try not to become too overwhelmed with the director’s meandering, breathtaking attempt at a narrative – Knight of Cups, like many of Malick’s previous films, is meant to be felt as much as it is meant to be understood.
Those familiar with the auteur’s previous two films, 2011’s Tree of Life and 2012’s To the Wonder will recognise the arcane, unconventional style found in those previous works. Whilst most action films contain a large number of quick cuts in order to portray the chaos of the physical situation at hand, Malick employs a startling, slashing editing style to imitate the consciousness of the protagonist, in this case Rick’s clash of confusion and serenity. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s images are often beautiful (sometimes gravely so) but rarely linger too long. Shots pan or zoom, exploring alien landscapes or delving through numbing, quotidian Hollywood parties, before suddenly switching and taking a new, untrodden path. Keeping up with the film logically is a difficult and possibly futile task, but keeping up with the meaning behind each image or the style that Malick employs reaps valuable rewards.
It is not only the visuals that hold a mystical strength that can be uncorked by any viewer willing to put in an equal effort. The sound design, so characteristic of a Malick film in its quiet, languid properties, is so subtly beautiful that you could just as easily turn the images off and let the free association poetry wash over you. Many critics question the legitimacy of the director’s proficiency for vague voiceover but there may not be any meaning to be found in his words, only emotion. On the other hand, careful listeners may be able to piece together Rick’s predicament through various character’s interpretations of him. The women in his life (each represented by a tarot card/chapter) are all so wildly different yet share ultimately familiar impressions Rick and he muses whether this is his fault or theirs. As always with Malick, there are some truly ethereal performances from the females in this film with Imogen Poots really standing out from the crowd.
The beauty of Knight of Cups lies in the fact that the film can be viewed, heard and interpreted in many different ways, as a whole or as stunning individual aspects. This is not to say, however, that the film does not have its problems, even within its own unique, otherworldly physique. Much has been made of Christian Bale’s Rick representing yet another downtrodden rich white man in America but whilst this is no doubt a industry-wide issue, it also has to be understood that this is a film about spiritual anxiety, not social anxiety, and how better to represent that than through a man who seemingly has it all? Or is there any such thing as having it all, especially in a place as competitively vain as Hollywood? Rick’s relationships seem to explore how we spend so much time worrying about ourselves that we forget that there are a million lives branching out from our own and forming new, fresh roots. There is a absurd and ritualistic density to be unpacked here, so much so that one review cannot do it justice but multiple viewings just might.
Knight of Cups was released in the UK on the 8th May 2016.