Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012) marked a significant shift in the director’s style. The film is highly stylized, featuring an extreme use of Malick’s signature techniques; namely shots of abstract body movement, nature, and a whispering voice-over that reveals the inner-workings of the film’s characters. Where Malick erred with To the Wonder, was allowing its style to be the substance of the film. That is,, To the Wonder’s script is rather weak and while the film is pretty to look at, there’s arguably nothing more to the film aside from its visual quality. With Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups (2016), Malick’s style has returned closer in nature (no pun intended) to what was exhibited in The Tree of Life (2011). Malick’s techniques in Knight of Cups haven’t necessarily been toned down, but instead, the film’s story has the substance that was lacking in To the Wonder. Knight of Cups, then, stands somewhere between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder and so it’s understandable why the film may be so divisive.
The manner in which the story is presented is still esoteric, but the element, which helps to make Knight of Cups more than just Malick’s love letter to himself, is the way he uses the camera in this film. In Knight of Cups, Malick’s camera becomes extremely mobile, dizzying its way through parties, twisting through the environment, and giving further insight to the inner processes of its character through the use of a rapid zoom-in/out.
The reason for this mobility is that Malick has turned the camera into a character that investigates his own world. Here, the audience is given the who, what, and why through the camera’s movements. Thus the camera is not just an investigator but also becomes a reflection of the way the protagonist, Rick (Christian Bale), sees the world. Through the camera movement, Knight of Cups reveals what it’s truly about: Rick’s disillusionment with not only with reality, but the present, and the ways Rick avoids reality by using drugs. The drugs enable him to escape to a metaphorical fantasy world. Rick’s disillusionment stems from a yearning for the past that becomes ever attractive but simultaneously haunts him for his own mistakes.
If it’s difficult to describe the plot of Knight of Cups, it’s not due to a weak script but the film’s bare focus on a standard narrative. The film mainly focuses on the portrait of Rick, a successful screenwriter living in Los Angeles. The story is told through a series of vignettes or chapters that derive their name from tarot cards, just like the film. In each chapter, the audience is shown the development of different relationships Rick has had with people (mostly women) in his current adult life, and the ways they transformed Rick by teaching him something about himself.
Rick’s job as a screenwriter, his yearning for the past, and the role women play in his life, all recall Federico Fellini’s introspective masterpiece 8 ½, a film that also dealt with similar issues on a personal scale. The key difference between Knight of Cups and 8 ½ however, is that despite Rick’s job as a screenwriter, Knight of Cups isn’t about cinema as an art form of self-reflection. In fact, Rick’s job as a screenwriter is downplayed, becoming relegated to nothing more than a tidbit. At most, one scene towards the beginning of the film showcase Rick and Della (Imogen Poots) traipsing through several Hollywood studio lots, as if further affirming that the role of cinema in Rick’s life is one that will forever remain in the background. As stated earlier, the camera movement in the film does reveal the inner-workings of Rick, through the juxtaposition of images but images aren’t always enough of an explanation. What is it about his job that’s owing to Rick’s disillusionment? It seems that Malick has missed an opportunity to allow the audience further into the world of his characters, try as he might with the movement of the camera, and so it is in this way that Knight of Cups distances itself away from To the Wonder but never quite reaches the par of Tree of Life.
Emmanuel Lubezki once again teams up with Malick, this time to provide beautiful imagery of Los Angeles, whether its beaches, the sky, or the lavish parties that Rick attends, and it may be this imagery which defines Knight of Cups. As evident in To the Wonder and partially, Knight of Cups, if Malick’s films continue to increase in their esotericism, while simultaneously placing a focus on the visual element of the film, Malick’s work will arguably become films that are more focused on presenting a work of experimentation that places the visual image in line with poetry; at the cost of this experimentation, however, so long as these works are feature-length and include story elements that will be shunned, these films will remain nothing more than fleeting images.
There is hope yet, however. While Malick’s films do emphasize the visual image, Malick’s use of a whispering voice-over narrator also foreground his films in the realm of sound, and in Knight of Cups sound is given a significant emphasis through Malick’s play with sound levels. Ironically, the film begins with an intertitle card that states: “For optimal sound reproduction, the producers of the film recommend that you play it loud.” What makes this ironic is that one of the ways which Malick plays with the sound in Knight of Cups, is by warping it. At times, dialogue and other sounds are shunned to the background, creating a sense that Rick is not entirely there, on a physical level and that the events around him are taking place in another world. Combined with the visual imagery, Malick’s play with sound make it so that Knight of Cups enters into the realm of surrealism, and it is this surreal nature that helps to drive the theme of Rick’s disillusionment with reality.
Knight of Cups is a film that at times may appear to be full of itself but Malick does emphasize and utilize certain film elements that help bring the audience into the world of its protagonist. The problem that remains, however, is that Malick only allows the audience mere glimpses. This makes Knight of Cups a highly abstract work that while better than To the Wonder, still leaves something more to be desired.