Terrence Malick, at this point, isn’t going to make any new fans with the distinctly personal direction his work has taken him in over the last five or six years. You’ve either accepted the radical change in his intent as an artist, or you haven’t. I was absolutely soul shaken by The Tree of Life (one of the best movies ever made) and his continued reinvention of the cinematic language continued with the perhaps even more personal To the Wonder. Now, with Knight of Cups, Malick has crafted his most openly sexual film of his career, telling a familiar story of hedonistic Los Angeles excess through a filter of dreamy poetry and the blinding beauty of the incomparable Emmanuel Lubezki’s bewilderingly seductive images. Christian Bale is the Malick stand-in this time around, and he continues where Ben Affleck impressively left off in To the Wonder, acting as a wandering cipher for most of the runtime, yet allowing you, crucially, into his headspace at key moments for maximum emotional impact.
Bale plays a screenwriter named Rick, aimlessly living a potentially toxic and empty existence in Los Angeles, and in a Fellini-esque stroke, Malick fills the film with strange and surreal moments that seem designed to test and tempt his flawed hero. Still haunted by the death of one brother and the troubling lifestyle of another, it’s clear that Rick’s chosen brand of self-medication is women and the carnal pleasures they can provide him. He stunts his sadness with a series of romps with a slew of impossibly attractive women, each one more potent than the last, with the voiceover slyly informing us that “sometimes you want raspberry…and then…sometimes…you want strawberry.” But instead of cheaply reducing women to nothing more than fanciful play objects, Malick makes it clear that women hold the key to Rick’s full understanding of his life, and that without the sometimes painful and challenging experiences that he faces, he wouldn’t be the complete man that he has become without these moments of potential discomfort.
Knight of Cups feels like Malick’s response to the overwhelming attraction that men can have when seeing a beautiful woman, and I found, at times, that the film seemed terrified by the power of the female form and mindset. Malick, never one to show on-screen sexual behavior or nudity in any sort of graphic fashion, cuts loose in Knight of Cups, filling the screen with one sexy and sensual image after another, all in a quest to capture the female body in ways that you’re not normally used to seeing. Similar to the recent work of Paolo Sorrentino in The Great Beauty and Youth, there is an almost fetishistic love for the female body in Knight of Cups, with the camera lingering on legs, breasts, faces, and derrieres, with Bale encountering one beguiling beauty after another, and the narrative taking on an impressionistic quality; this film is a blur of sound, image, and color, with a fleeting sense of randomness that thematically and aesthetically ties it neatly into Phase 2 Malick.
If To the Wonder was born out of The Tree of Life, then Knight of Cups feels like the next logical extension from To the Wonder, with Malick continually pushing the boundaries of non-linear, free-form storytelling. It’s also sort of thrilling to see a totally modern film from Malick, who is prone to period pieces, and to my knowledge, has never shot in the city of Los Angeles before working on Knight of Cups. The city is given the glow of a halo, with a lyrical vibe projected under Malick’s starry-eyed gaze, and it’s rather astonishing that he’s made one of the most recognizable cities look totally different than what you’re used to seeing. There are some nighttime shots of downtown Los Angeles that will produce feelings of apoplexy for Michael Mann when he sees this shimmery piece of work. The overwhelmingly alluring supporting cast of females includes Nathalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, and Isabel Lucas, while Antonio Banderas, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, and Armin Mueller-Stahl all provide memorable bits and pieces that help to solidify the clearly personal and internalized story. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this decadent piece of cinema throughout the year as more viewings occur, but for now, I’ll state that I was positively engrossed immediately from the start, and after two screenings, it feels as different and new as one could hope from a filmmaker who never seems content to play it traditional or safe.