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Knight of Cups

May 22, 2016

Knight of Cups (2016)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Christian Bale, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley

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Synopsis: Rick (Christian Bale) is an LA screenwriter going through some form of spiritual crisis.

Review: I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon. I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities. 

These words from Jack Kerouac could easily be the foreword to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups: a deeply sensual and mesmeric evocation of the alienating effect of Tinseltown as refracted through our ghostly conduit, Rick – an LA screenwriter (’embodied’ as much as ‘played’ by Christian Bale). As is evident through the trajectory of Malick’s career from The Tree of Life to To the Wonder, his impressionistic, experiential aesthetic is even denser and more abstract in Knight of Cups – there’s barely any ‘story’ at all, and those small shards of narrative we are given appear in sudden, non-linear bursts. Then there’s the main character, Rick – as mentioned earlier, he’s more our guide, our witness, as the pageant of Angelino life plays around him (incidentally, note how many times Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera frames Rick from behind – his stoic, hulking shoulders implying a stunned soul trying desperately to process and make sense of the world around him.)

As in To the Wonder, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is as much the ‘inscriber’ of this film as Terrence Malick. Whether we’re privy to a boundless view of the horizon from Santa Monica or Malibu beaches, a primal piece of desert to the east of LA, a decadent Hollywood Hills party, or a sojourn into the neon lure of Las Vegas, Lubezki’s cinematography transcends the narrative and politics of the people in the frame to conjure a sense of the transcendent and ‘holy’ – casting no pejorative rhetoric between his images of nature and the metropolis. Particularly mesmeric is Lubezki’s phantomisation of his camera: the way each cut opens on a subtle and gentle glide of camera – somehow personifying (like in To the Wonder) a more divine perspective.

Knight of Cups is so rich – the interpretive possibilities are almost endless (a pleasing by-product of the rejection of the tyranny of dramaturgy), but Malick’s water imagery is especially to the fore here – in fact, it’s a film that finds perhaps the greatest import in it since the films of that master of elemental symbolism: Andrei Tarkovsky. There are obviously the clear religious connotations of the cleansing and baptismal properties of water (note Rick’s very profound submerging of his ubiquitous, pristine ‘suited’ persona in the final act), but most of all there are the glossy, gilded swimming pools of the many mansions of LA which function as the apex of Malick’s treatise on Los Angeles being a place where man has to work hardest to recover his sense of sanctity. (May 2016)

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