Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Knight of Cups

KNIGHT OF CUPS (Terrence Malick, 2015)

KNIGHT OF CUPS follows Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter lost in the wilderness of Hollywood and all of the temptations it has to offer. Writer-director Terrence Malick compares Rick’s experience with a story about a father who sends his son west to retrieve a pearl, except the boy forgets his mission as he is seduced by what this new land puts before him. Success has brought money and an unending flow of beautiful women to Rick, but it has separated him from his wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and brought tension between him and his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). Like Rick, who is referred to in the title, every significant character is given a chapter named after their corresponding tarot card. Each segment looks at how each person affects the wandering dreamer.

Malick continues to push his style to greater abstraction in KNIGHT OF CUPS. This film may show the limits of its utility. Malick employs a thin line of narrative for hanging his meditations in voiceover about the pursuit of God and love and alienation from it amid a world that distracts from the eternal by making beauty and novelty easily accessible to stave off boredom. Characters are heard on the soundtrack before they’ve been introduced and often sound the same, so it can be difficult to parse whose thoughts we’re hearing, although Malick may be more interested in the totality of the statements than assigning any to particular voices. The technique is freeing in that it allows the viewer to float along with the experience and confounding when trying to understand specifically what Malick is saying. For better or worse, the actors are symbols, even more than in his previous film.

After THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER, how much one is willing to submit to the ride probably depends on one’s tolerance for Malick’s mystical poetry. The film unspools like a waking illusion, with Rick hazily roaming through the dream factory rich in material things and impoverished spiritually. It helps that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ravishing imagery of manmade opulence holds interest even if one loses the threads of philosophy and theology that hold KNIGHT OF CUPS together. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film in which the camera swoops among the people and tilts upward as if in worship and humility.

Christian or faith-based cinema tends to be narrowly defined to the kind of pat homiletics in stuff like MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN. Certainly those very straightforward types of films are more accessible on an aesthetic level than the sound and image pastiche Malick favors, but both are searching for something higher. KNIGHT OF CUPS dwells in the sinful entertainment capital to understand how one can be led astray and might be led out. If there can be multiple denominations within the predominant western religion, why can’t there be different ways for art to contemplate the nature of the divine too?

Grade: B

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