“You think when you reach a certain age, things will start making sense. Then you find out you’re just as lost as you were before.”
That was the key. That was the passage that unlocked Knight of Cups for me. We hear the words midway through Terrence Malick’s latest visual poem, by the actor Brian Dennehy, who occasionally appears in Knight of Cups as Christian Bale’s father. This being a Malick film, Dennehy gently eases the words out in a melancholic voiceover. Malick’s voiceovers are obscure, lyrical passages. They blend together, subtly evoking emotion. It could be easy to miss the Dennehy passage quoted above, but when I heard it, Knight of Cups suddenly made sense. Everything clicked. I understood the world. I understood the tone, the feeling. I understood the plight of the main character, Rick (Bale). I understood what Malick was trying to say, even if my interpretation wasn’t what Malick was exactly trying to say.
There is no blanket interpretation of Knight of Cups. This film is not meant to be understood the same by everyone. If I look at an abstract painting for three minutes, then you look at the same abstract painting for three minutes, we’re likely to walk away with completely different understandings of what that painting means. Music works similarly. You can play the same song for nine people, and they’re all going to have a different emotional connection to it. Art speaks to all of us differently, because art is a reflection of who we are and what we’ve been through.
But with film, this idea of subjective experience is often overlooked. In the month since Knight of Cups’ domestic release, I’ve silently observed social media feuds, and read dozens of think pieces, in which combatants proclaim what Knight of Cups is, and if it is any good. Everyone seems to think they are right, but what I’m positing is that no one is right. Not with a film like Knight of Cups. With a movie as obscure and fluid as this, no one is right and no one is wrong. There’s no right way to interpret a painting, just like there’s no wrong way to connect with a piece of music.
Knight of Cups is a film I admired a great deal. I had a profound emotional experience watching it. The film is one of the most thematically confident meditations on depression, emotional apathy, and fear of worthlessness that I have ever seen. This being a Terrance Malick film, none of these ideas are explicitly mentioned. Instead of long monologues about depression, Malick chooses to follow Rick, an aimless Hollywood screenwriter, around for an uncertain amount of time. We interpret Rick’s despair through his rigid body language; we see hints of his anguish through the many women he lets in, and quickly forces out, of his life.
Rick is a man surrounded by privilege who doesn’t care about privilege. His agents beg him to take high-paying jobs, offering him literal bundles of cash to commit. His hip yet cold apartment is robbed. His former lover cries in his arms. Nothing registers.
He runs on a beach with a beautiful woman, walks the streets of Skid Row, drifts through an A-list party in the Hollywood Hills, stares off at a strip club in Vegas. It’s all the same to him. It doesn’t matter where he is, who he’s with, or what he’s doing, Rick can’t escape the emotional hell of his trapped mind. Why is he like this? Brief glimpses of his family are the most prudent evidence. His brother (Wes Bentley) is a recovering junkie who carries himself with an air of unpredictability, his father (Dennehy) seems an angry, somewhat regrettable old man who is resented by his sons. Does that explain Rick’s plight? Can depression be explained that easily? Can genuine apathy be understood in mere glimpses?
That’s Knight of Cups. A film that follows a man as he tries to find purpose. We follow him through the pockets of Los Angeles (beautifully captured by maestro cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki) navigating its crowded but lonely streets. We follow him as he begins a relationship (with Imogen Poots or Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett or Natalie Portman, this model or that one) and ends it the moment any semblance of connection is felt. We follow him through an empty apartment and an open road, where the possibilities are far from over over. In fact, perhaps, the possibilities for Rick have only just begun. A
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