Dir. Terence Malick. U.S. 2015

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Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups has the familiar Malickian stamp. It is rambling, unstructured, often indecipherable and filled with barely audible voiceovers that come close to self parody, yet, for me, no present American or perhaps even international director can match Malick’s self-reflective poetry or his ability to capture the essence of man’s spiritual nature. The film is no more penetrable than James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, but its meaning is there if you are willing to pierce its elliptical style, even though ultimately the message may be different for everyone. Set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, like actor Johnny Marco in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, Rick (Christian Bale), a Hollywood screenwriter, seems to wander through life emotionally numb. He is surrounded by all the amenities anyone could possibly desire including available women, an upscale life style, and good looks.

It is almost La Dolce Vita but something is missing, something fundamental perhaps – purpose, connection, engagement, and being able to love and be loved. “Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream,” Rick is Christian in John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, whose opening lines are directly quoted in the film by Sir John Gielgud. Rick’s quest for redemption and expiation of his sins unfolds like Christian’s journey “wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.” Unlike Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick turns away from Judeo-Christian references to embrace the symbolic language of the Tarot. Divided into chapters, each having the title of a Tarot card : The Hermit, The Hanged Man, The Fool, The Tower, and Death, the Knight of Cups represents romance, charm, and purity, the proverbial “knight in shining armor.”

Reversed, it is the failure to achieve spiritual purity as a result of jealousy, moodiness, and unrealistic aspirations. Its symbolic meaning, according to author Sylvie Simon is, “a wandering lover, messenger of hidden or repressed desires, and violent passions,” all traits of the main character. After a gorgeous Malickian view from space of the aurora borealis, photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, another narrator tells the story (taken from the Gnostics’ “Acts of Thomas”) of a knight sent to Egypt by his father to retrieve a pearl from a serpent but who loses his way until a messenger brings redemption. It is a motif that is repeated several times throughout the movie but the pearl remains elusive.

There is very little dialogue in the film and it could almost be retitled “Goodbye to Language, Part Two.” Without a linear narrative, the film moves from image to image, dreamlike and surreal, from lonely stretches of desert and stunning mountainous vistas to scenes of urban decay, homeless men sleeping on the streets juxtaposed with Beverly Hills mansions, Hollywood studio back lots, and beach apartments, brought to life by a soundtrack that features an original score by Canadian composer Hanan Townshend and classical music by Wojciech Kilar, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Arvo Part, and others. Through it all there is an indescribable feeling of emptiness.

Drifting through each day alienated and disconnected from his emotions, Rick is haunted by thoughts of his overbearing father (Brian Dennehy), his unstable brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who the film soon introduces, and another brother whose suicide gives us the only clue to Rick’s alienation and possibly Malick’s as well. Women drift in and out of Rick’s life, his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a guilt-filled married woman with whom he had an affair and who became pregnant. There are also fleeting affairs with Della (Imogen Poots), Helen (Freida Pinto), an alluring model, Karen (Teresa Palmer), a night-club stripper whom he takes to Las Vegas until he gets tired of the scene, Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a blonde he meets at the beach while engaged in his many walks along the surf, and there are others. While none of these women are ciphers, they are unable to fulfill his need for love. Nothing shakes Rick’s emotional numbness, not even an earthquake that rattles his apartment.

Knight of Cups is definitely not an easy film to love as many critics will not hesitate to tell you, yet it is a physically beautiful, spiritually literate, experimental film that is miles above what the majority of movies offer today. Rather than adhering to the contemporary materialist paradigm that denies our true power, Malick directs us towards a deeper reality. Rick’s priest (Armin Mueller-Stahl) speaks a universal truth when he says "When you see someone beautiful, that's your soul remembering the beauty it used to know in heaven,” and that suffering takes us “higher – out of ourselves” where we can recognize the order of the universe. Rick is also guided by a teacher of Zen (Peter Matthiessen) who suggests being in the moment. “Everything is there,” he says, “perfect and complete.” Knight of Cups is not for everyone, but it has something to say and says it well and left me with a feeling of joy and transcendence.


Howard Schumann

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