Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Knight of Cups

“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’s a key problem with the way films are received. Film, more than any artistic medium, needs to be understood by the masses. People need to agree on what it’s about, who the characters were, how strong the ending was – with film, people seek validation that their interpretation of the movie is correct. I’ve never understood that. Perhaps it’s because, with movies, the visual world is created for us. When we read a book, we create our own visual interpretation of the world the book establishes. No matter how detailed the text is, we fill in the gaps. In film, the gaps are often filled in for us. Maybe that’s why people seek a collective opinion on the movies they see.
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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19 comments:

  1. I think you and I are definitely on the same page as it relates to this film. In fact, I was only one of 2 people that saw the film in the theaters but the person that was some seats behind me I think left 10 minutes into the film. I stayed on and wow... it's really unlike anything. You're right, there are no correct interpretations.

    Plus, I'm convinced, like some, that this film is part of a trilogy of films Malick is making as it relates to stories that are semi-biographical or just very personal. This film is based on his time in Hollywood during the 70s while To the Wonder was based on his second marriage and how it fell apart, and The Tree of Life was based on his childhood.

    Now I await for what he does next and.... get that box set of The New World from Criterion this year.

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    1. Awesome man, so glad you liked this one as much as I did. I will seek out your review shortly.

      You know (and I can't believe I feel this way), but the extended cut of The New World feels like a regression. Perhaps it's because I saw (and fell in love with) the theatrical version 10 years ago, but the extended cut feels a little too detached to me. Although I will give Malick credit, it is a radically different cut than the original.

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  2. I tried to like Malick's films and I just can't do it. They sound so good on paper, then I never seem to see them they way everyone else does. I suppose that's in line with what you talked about, how we all see different things. I like to speculate on films after I've seen them, which is why I don't mind ambiguous endings. I'm glad this film worked for you. Great write up!

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    1. Thanks Brittani! And of course I respect your opinion on Malick's films - personal taste is personal taste! What I don't get are the people who feel the way that you do, yet they watch each one of his films expecting to finally get them. And when they don't "get" it, they bash it. THAT is what never made sense to me. If something isn't for you, hey, fair enough, but why continually bash something that you knew wasn't for you in the first place?

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  3. So glad this one worked for you as much as it did for myself. I didn't know how to write about how this one did it for me, it's near impossible to express in words. I did my best because this is my favorite of his since Thin Red Line. Unmistakably a Malick film, but at the same time a very different approach, never straying from a first-person, or even conscience, P.O.V instead of the thoughts and feelings of a group of people. My screening had the most walk-outs I've ever seen, but I was entranced by the spell of the filmmaker and Bale's performance.

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    1. So good man. Really pleased we liked this one so much. Did you post your review? If so, I will seek it out shortly. I loved everything about this movie!

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    2. Yes it's posted on my site right here: http://cityuponahillmedia.com/blog/film-review-knight-of-cups/
      Again I did my best to explain my admiration for the visionary that is Malick. Please leave a comment!

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  4. I'm split down the middle on Terrence Malick. I saw the Tree of Life which had terrific performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. But the sequences that consist of nature shots became a bit too repetitive.

    So I'm unsure on this one.

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    1. Well, as someone who is a Malick fan. You'll definitely not like this and his previous film To the Wonder. They're sort of avant-garde in a way because they don't play by traditional narrative ideas or rules. It's really very loose and it's more about the experience of what one would go through in a situation in a man's life as these two films as well as The Tree of Life are semi-biographical.

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    2. Yeah, I agree with thevoid here. If you're more into Badlands/The Thin Red Line Malick, then To the Wonder and Knight of Cups probably won't be your thing. That said, Knight of Cups doesn't contain extended passages of the creation of Earth or anything. But, like thevoid said, it certainly does not follow the conventions of narrative storytelling. But hell, I'd still urge you to give it a go, you know?

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  5. Nice review! Somehow I feel like this is right up my alley since The Tree of Life was. Your notes about there being no right way to interpret art is spot-on.

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    1. Thanks Katy! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one if you get around to seeing it!

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  6. Yeah, the cinematography is worth the ticket price alone! The critics were quite harsh on Knight of Cups, I agree it's beautiful, and as a Malick fan I enjoyed it.
    For me, his latest is better than To The Wonder, but not as great as Tree of Life and his 70s stuff.

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    1. So glad you liked it! I agree that To the Wonder is his weakest effort (yet I still adore it). And I completely agree that the critics gave Knight of Cups such an unfair beating.

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  7. I'm a pretty big Terrence Malick fan, but this movie hasn't really interested me until now. I wasn't a big fan of The Tree of Life and never even watched To the Wonder, but i think i'll give this a shot after reading this review. It's really strange to see him release this many movies so close to each other with two more coming out this year according to Imdb.

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    1. Oh man, I hope you like it! In my opinion, it's best to just let these later Malick films wash over you. There is very little conventional narrative drive in Knight of Cups, but that's why I absolutely adore it. Let me know what you think!

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  8. Saw a couple of clips and was far from impressed- but its Malick so I'll get to it eventually. On the topic of this years reviews: Are you going to do 'Embrace of the Serpent'?

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    1. I really adored Knight of Cups, but it certainly isn't for everyone. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts. I have yet to see Embrace of the Serpent, but I'm very interested in it.

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