New To Blu: Knight of Cups

Andrew reviews Terrence Malick's most difficult and arguably personal film yet.

But I just wanna be Batman.

There is no middle ground with Terrence Malick, that eternally wise and brilliant yet wholly uncompromising auteur who is unquestionably in league with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Lars Von Trier whether you appreciate his art or not.  You're either on board with his deeply felt interior monologue or you're not.  You either hate him or you love him, with few falling in between.  Intensely reclusive, contemplative, frustrating, grand and epochal, Malick's cinema is a film language entirely all his own with the staggering power of a dream that manages to rival the ethereal beauty of Godfrey Reggio or Ron Fricke.  

Bursting onto the scene almost out of nowhere in 1973 with the killing spree drama Badlands followed by his 1978 love triangle drama Days of Heaven, Malick got too big for comfort and disappeared from the cinema scene for almost twenty years before sneakily reemerging with 1998's star studded WWII Guadalcanal drama The Thin Red Line.  After his 2005 Pocahontas drama The New World, Malick completely reinvented his own narrative, visual and sonic approach while never losing sight of his thematic interests with the bold and polarizing 2011 Palme d'Or winning epic The Tree of Life.  Malick continued this impetus unabated with increasing distance from his audience with 2012's To the Wonder, the fastest turnaround between pictures yet for the 72 year old director.  Now here is Knight of Cups, a film which falls somewhere between his own The Tree of Life and the hedonistic Hollywood excesses of Bernard Rose's ivansxtc and with it makes arguably his most difficult and personal expression to date.

Pinterest Google+ StumbleUpon Twitter Reddit Facebook

To try and describe the plot or the performances in Malick's film is beside the point, with Christian Bale as his disaffected muse this time around although Brian Dennehy gives one of his best performances for years to come here.  It is an experience of light, sound, color and juxtaposition which, as Kubrick best described of his own work, doesn't quarrel "with your interpretation nor offering any other".  With each passing film, narrative structure and logic is further eroded away than ever before, broken down into totally abstract fragments with loose connective tissue aided by soft whispers, select camera use and an ambient soundscape by Hanan Townshend.  With Knight of Cups, Malick to one extent joins David Cronenberg, David Lynch, John Schlesinger and the aforementioned Bernard Rose with his unflattering look at the lifestyle of a Hollywood player riding the crest wave of drugs, partying and womanizing.  Some critics have read Knight of Cups as Malick airing out his dirty laundry but anything with Malick's art is open to discussion.  Visually, Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is absolutely stunning and for Malick it represents the most use of the digital camera and GoPro cameras in his oeuvre.  Not since Michael Mann's Collateral or Lars Von Trier's Dogville has camera movement looked so intentionally blurry with ghosting and frame dropping and nighttime scenes haven't felt this illuminated before.  Lubezki's trademark wide angle camerawork seen in The Tree of Life and recently in The Revenant is recognizable but this is the first time I can recall it looking so overtly digital in form.  

Some will say Terrence Malick is approaching his Jean Luc Godard phase with his gradual withdrawal from the spectator's understanding of his narrative and stylistically not since late 1970s Akira Kurosawa have we seen such a drastic stylistic shift in a major director from his far more accessible past.  As such, Knight of Cups joins To the Wonder as his most improvisational approach to direction and screenwriting, much to the chagrin of critics and his own cast members who shoot one scene as planned before finding an entirely different result emerging from the editing room.  Newcomers to Malick like Nick Kroll, Thomas Lennon and Antonio Banderas admit to loving his freeform process while others like Sean Penn and Christopher Plummer can't help but balk at the vast differences between what's on the paper and what Malick constructs as the finished image.  

Watching Knight of Cups will frustrate many while hypnotizing others.  For myself it was a breathtaking meditation into one man's journey within, searching for purpose in an empty and facile way of life that happens to take place in Tinseltown.  The best way to describe Knight of Cups to those open to Malick's absolute expression of pure cinema is to compare it to something like Bob Fosse's All That Jazz in that it functions as a thinly veiled confessional of a wise elder coming to terms with his place in the world.  


- Andrew Kotwicki