Crisis of Success: On Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2015)

A screenshot from Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups"

After watching Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, I couldn’t help but think that, sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to an artist is success. Monetary success, I mean, since there are other metrics to the word than mere financial gain. Well, I suppose I also mean more than monetary success – acclaim, something most artists, in some way, want; perhaps more than just bags of cash (if you’re worth anything, at least). For with acclaim comes validation, and confirmation that the artist’s work means something more than what he or she can prove only to themselves. Even all this, however, comes with baggage: for if you have proved to yourself and others that your work is what it set out to be, and you’ve won your laurels (and your mansions), where else does one go?

One could, of course, retread familiar ground. You see this with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, two of America’s greatest filmmakers reduced to feeding off their own reputations, creating movies that certainly look and feel like their golden ages, but with none of the greatness. Their most recent productions (2019’s The Irishman and A Rainy Day in New York, respectively) amount to nothing more than self-mimicry – and why not? Scorsese and Allen, once young and hungry and eager to prove something, have regressed into luxurious waste, canonized as they are in most cineastes’ estimation. When you have nothing to prove, I guess all that’s left is pelf, and the desire for it. This late into their careers, anything Scorsese puts out will get praise solely on the basis of his reputation, and Allen, although his own reputation is mired in scandal, will seemingly continue to pump out trifles until he keels over.

In the case of Terrence Malick, you get some of this, but you also get something more curious. Yes, there’s the self-cannibalization of technique, but – contrary to the prior artists’ approach – along with that comes an opening-up of artistry, rather than mere imitation. For no other American filmmaker has developed their own visual language to the extent that Malick has, for better or worse. His pivotal collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki has been fruitful, no doubt, and has spawned legions of imitators, both of good-faith and parodistic. You know what I mean: the camera’s whirligig motions, swaying and swooping from arid landscapes into closeups while enigmatic lines are mumbled in voice-over. The impeccable lighting struck through with ruminations on time, death, self and God, or whatever Malick chooses from his grab-bag of philosophies.

And nowhere is this more egregious than in Knight of Cups, perhaps Terrence Malick’s worst film in a career that has seemingly accelerated into senescence. If you took all the worst parts of The Tree of Life (an excellent film with execrable portions) and blew them up into a feature, you would get something like Knight of Cups. On my first viewing of it, on the year of its release, I remember being dumbfounded that the same man who made Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World was responsible for the disorganized dreck playing out before my eyes. Other audience members seemed to agree: within the first twenty minutes of the film, more than a few walked out – one man even flipping off the screen in disgust.

Of course, great films can often be difficult. Inaccessible, even, to a larger, mainstream audience. And sure, Knight of Cups certainly is riddled with the signposts of a great, profound film. But it’s one thing to strike the pose, and another thing entirely to carry the essence. The main issue with the film is that, for all its gestures and hushed tones, Knight of Cups is just so superficial. Its apparent depth is really just occlusion, and the ideas Malick traffics in are stale and, more significantly, have been done before, and done far better.

The plot is very simple: Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter, peregrinates around Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and his memories. There are chapters, each titled with a different aspect of the Tarot, and each concerned with a personality the man encounters and who, in some way, embody that specific aspect:

The Moon – Rick is introduced and is involved with Della (Imogen Poots) a reckless, mischievous young woman. A narrator intones portions of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Hanged Man – Rick’s brother, Barry (Wes Bentley), enters. Their past seems weighted with trauma, mostly due to their relationship with their father, Joseph (Brian Dennehy), a raging, lecturing type who unloads his self-loathing onto his sons.

The Hermit – Tonio (Antonio Banderas), a rich playboy who hosts Rick and other celebrities/socialites at his lavish mansion. Shades of Antonioni’s La Notte, with a direct reference when the partiers start jumping into a pool.

Judgment – Rick’s ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a physician. It is unclear if this relationship precedes the others in the film.

The Tower – Rick becomes involved with a model he met at Tonio’s party, Helen (Frieda Pinto), and is shown the ins-and-outs of that industry.

The High Priestess – Rick meets Karen (Teresa Palmer), a free-spirited stripper who gyrates on poles while whispering empty bon mots. Rick becomes one of a series of her casual flings with powerful men.

Death – Rick is with Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a married woman (it is unclear if he is still with Nancy, at this time) who becomes pregnant and distraught over the possibility that it is theirs.

Freedom (the sole non-Tarot chapter) – there is Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a thin, ethereally beautiful blonde who may or may not be real, who seemingly helps Rick resolve his emptiness and discover meaning in his life.

So, not totally disorganized – and I use that term intentionally, as opposed to the weaker “unorganized.” There is a deliberate attempt on Terrence Malick’s part to upset a traditional display of narrative form. This project begins in full with 2013’s To The Wonder, although its budding can be witnessed in The Tree of Life (2011), elements of which reappear in Knight of Cups, as Rick’s plight is quite similar to the Sean Penn character’s, down to both of them plodding around desertscapes in full business attire while they mutter their yearnings for meaning.

The chapters are not totally localized, as some involve moments from others. Apart from the Tarot scheme, the film avoids straightforward narrative development, resulting in a mishmash of scene, dialogue, and voice-over, with the camera heedlessly sweeping from one perspective to the next. Apart from visuals, this is perhaps the best part about Knight of Cups, as this disjointed approach allows viewers to imbue the narrative themselves, and so much of the film is symbolic, metaphorical, and (I’d argue) heavily subjectivized from Rick’s POV that it becomes a somewhat compelling game, piecing everything together in order to construct the story in lieu of more direct authorial control.

Everything else, however, falls prey to Terrence Malick’s laxity in portraying anything of real depth. In his heyday, his films could be difficult; esoteric, even, to a casual viewer. In Days of Heaven, the obliqueness of Linda’s narration might seem like fluff, but actually contained profound lines relating to her own limited perspective of the goings-on of her companions. The Thin Red Line (perhaps Malick’s greatest film) had its own share of spliced memory, strange voice-overs, and intimations toward transcendence, but the narrative drive was more powerful, as the Guadalcanal campaign, and its novelistic source material, gave him a real framework upon which to drape his artistry. The New World? Also based on real historical events (as well as the origin of Malick’s collaboration with Lubezki), it is no less coherent than The Thin Red Line and never allows its philosophies to ripen into saccharine cliché (despite what its detractors claim).

The biggest problem with Knight of Cups is not that it’s incoherent. It’s a mess, to be sure, but not a nonsensical one. Neither is Malick/Lubezki’s new visual approach to blame – their famous “dogma” might be self-limiting, but it provides technical rigor, at least – for it was used to stunning effect in earlier films. The real culprit here is Malick’s capitulation to vapidity and superficial philosophizing.

Is this shocking? Terrence Malick’s once-notorious long gaps between films have shortened drastically: his 2010s productions have all appeared within three or four years of the other’s release. There is a real argument in claiming that the long gaps were necessary for Malick to concoct greatness, for his spurred output of recent years has turned out (relative to his artistic heights) clunker after clunker. This is a shame, as it’s clear Malick is still stretching himself creatively: something that cannot be said about the two previously mentioned American directors.

So, no, not shocking. An additional problem is Terrence Malick’s obsession with materialistic wastrels and celebrity culture. This is partly evident in his casting of big-name actors and actresses in the recent features. You could argue that this began with The Thin Red Line, but you’d be forgetting the controversy he begat by sidelining the A-list cast, cutting parts (Adrien Brody’s, mainly) and subordinating them to Private Witt, who was played by Jim Caviezel, a relative no-name at the time. This earned him the ire of many a bigwig but was indicative of his concerns with chasing depth and profundity over box-office sales.

But now, as Malick’s reputation has crested, it has become easier for him to collaborate with celebrities and market his films on the basis of their appearances in them. Knight of Cups is inundated with distracting, needless cameos of little worth to the overall story – but this waste is not restricted to the tertiary cast. Christian Bale, in the lead role, is reduced to staring poignantly at people/vistas, and the secondary characters are cardboard cutouts – they have no inner lives and exist solely as steppingstones for Rick’s wandering towards self-actualization. The Tarot structure provides a thin layer of characterization, but the characters are rarely treated as anything deeper than mere representations. There are good moments here and there: a compelling shot of Joseph silently raving on a harshly lit stage, or Nancy caring for a deformed patient at her hospital. But these are just brief one-offs culled from a mass of largely improvised material – a red-flag signaling creative failure, on Malick’s part. Regardless of their celebrity status, most of the cast are fine actors in their own right, so the onus is on Malick to craft a story worthy of their talents. The result, however, is something as shallow as the materialistic culture he derides. His follow up to this film, Song to Song (2017), fails on similar grounds.

One could argue, perhaps, that this is Terrence Malick’s point: in order to explore this materialistic subculture, he must immerse himself in its milieu. This holds water only to the point that there is an air of authenticity, setting/plot-wise. One believes that this is what the rich and famous really get up to as a means to distract themselves with revelry, sex, and money. But it is a narrow look, and Knight of Cups hyper-focusing on Rick is an error, as he is simply not a good character. The transformation in the end is totally unconvincing, as he has undergone no real growth. It’s as if the man is phased through relationships/interactions, muttering on and on about desire for meaning and love and God or whatever, and his swimming up into awareness is supplied by fiat.

On a positive note, the cinematography can be stunning (Lubezki does good work, as always) and the acting is, for the most part, not bad – but you can tell many of the actors are making up their scenes on the spot, as there is a vague, searching, rushed quality to the dialogue, and much of it is stuffed with cliché.

In the end, one wonders: what’s the point? Terrence Malick’s experimentation is utterly wasted on his subject matter, and it’s only a matter of time before some tipping point occurs, and he goes full Scorsese/Allen or wallows even deeper in the dreck. 2019’s A Hidden Life is reported to be a return to form, of sorts, but its somewhat tepid reception signals a Scorsese/Allen-like regression, rather than rediscovered mastery. It’s a shame, as Malick pre-To the Wonder could reasonably be argued as America’s greatest living filmmaker, and its most daring visual auteur. There’s still daring, but the greatness is gone, its remnants mere pinpricks on a grey and desolate expanse.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Ezekiel Yu: When Everything Was Cresting: On Wallace Stegner’s “Recapitulation”Where David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” (2021) Fails, Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

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