Knight of Cups: The Thin Bloodline, by Josh Long
Like Ingmar Bergman or Krystof Kieslowski before him, Terence Malick is a filmmaker ambitious enough to deal with the biggest questions imaginable. Who are we? Where do we belong? What does it all mean? These manner of questions are limp in the hands of a lesser artist, but Malick rightly earns his place among the greats by handling such subjects in thoughtful, emotional depth, with his trademark kinetic flow – always moving, always shifting. This ephemeral, floating visual approach is all the more potent in Knight of Cups, where Christian Bale’s Rick is a confused wanderer, “a stranger in a strange land,” searching for something, always wondering what.
Malick is in regular form here – constantly moving cameras, sudden changes of setting, on screen dialogue eschewed almost entirely for narration. As usual, the narration reads as inner monologue, the thoughts Malick’s characters are unable, or perhaps afraid, to say. While Tree of Life examined what it meant to grow into humanity and the balance between Grace and Justice, Knight of Cups aims for an equally lofty study of how one finds the purpose in their life. The film begins with narration taken from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a 17th century allegory that follows an everyman’s journey from a burdened life to salvation and renewal. A separate narration, beginning later in the film, tells the story of a young prince sent on a quest to discover a precious pearl. Only the young man becomes distracted, forgets who he is, and the importance of his quest.
Our view of Rick is informed by these twin stories and, as we watch him wander through his life, we understand (as we hope he does) that he has lost his way. He’s forgotten his purpose, and even if he is destined for redemption, he may be getting further away from it. We see the man that he has been – and the man he’s wanted to be – through his relationships. Primarily through his family, and the women he’s loved.
The most powerful figure in Rick’s life is, ironically, his ailing father (Brian Dennehy). It is the father’s voice that tells the story of the young man and the pearl. He speaks in unadulterated religious terms about his desire for Rick to do right, to follow the path he’s meant for. He also recognizes his own failing – “because I stumbled down the road like a drunk… that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one.” This earnest desire for his son to reconnect with the greater meaning for his life echoes throughout the film. It is clear that Rick is searching for meaning, and latches on to different fragments of it through the women he loves. Nancy (Cate Blanchett), his ex-wife, represents stability, the comfort of family, a safe life. Helen (Freida Pinto), a beautiful model, points him to serenity, peace in simplicity. Karen (Teresa Palmer), an exotic dancer, lives in physical and spiritual hedonism, extolling the virtues of a life where you take everything you want; “your mind’s a theater, I say, try it all.”
These people in Rick’s life all try to teach him something. Similar to the way The Pilgrim’s Progress gives its characters emblematic names (e.g. Pliable, Timorous, Prudence) Knight of Cups connects each of its major characters to a Tarot card. Nancy is “Judgment,” Karen “The High Priestess,” Rick’s father and brother together are “The Hanged Man.” The film’s title comes from the card for Rick himself, and it’s notable that the film’s poster depicts an image of Rick upside-down; Tarot cards are said to have alternate readings depending on whether they appear upright or reversed. The reversed Knight of Cups suggests “unreliability and recklessness.” Throughout the film, Rick searches for a way to “upright” himself, most importantly in the way that he connects to the people around him. As an earthquake at the beginning of the film pushes him to see that he cannot exist in this world without being affected by it, so his connections (and his failings) to the people in his life teach him that he cannot exist in this world without having his own effect.
The film takes place primarily in Los Angeles, and the setting enhances the story. Los Angeles offers such an eclectic spectrum of ideas and lifestyles that it adds to the confusion binding Rick. He goes from ritzy Hollywood parties to Skid Row, to the ocean, and all the highways in between. The film shows Los Angeles in its swirling, ever-changing state, making it ever harder for Rick to take a solid hold on something. It’s a credit to the film that this feels like a real Los Angeles, not a fabricated movie version.
Knight of Cups is a beautifully realized dramatization of man’s search for meaning and, though such credit is due to an artist like Malick, it would be foolish not to mention the contribution of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. If there is one man who has done more to establish the cinematic look of this decade, it’s Chivo. His work here, as always, is fluid, haunting, engrossing – brilliant. The combination of these two creative forces has staggering results and I look forward to any other films they happen to make together.